The combat readiness of the South African National Defence Force is under threat, with the latest results of an Aids project showing that an overwhelming 89 percent of those soldiers who volunteered for testing were HIV-positive.
The SANDF is also losing at least 400 000 working days a year because of the disease.
This was disclosed at a five-day conference held in Richards Bay this week. Sixteen African countries attended the conference, which was a collaboration between the SANDF and the United States. The aim is to establish the rate of infection and the effects of anti-retroviral treatment on South Africa’s military forces.
In the first six months of the project 1 089 soldiers volunteered to be tested, of whom 947 were found to be HIV-positive. The average age of the sample was 34, and 60 percent of volunteers were married.
Rear-Admiral JG Engelbrecht said infected soldiers in the early stages of the disease were absent for an average of 20 days a year. This increased to 45 days for soldiers displaying symptoms, and a minimum of 120 days for those with full-blown Aids. Conservatively, 18 940 days will be lost by the 947 soldiers identified on the programme.
The SANDF’s official figure for HIV/Aids-infected soldiers stands at 23 percent, but Aids specialists have set a more realistic figure of 40 percent, or about 28 000, infected.
With the figure of 23 percent infection, 338 000 days are lost. However, if the figure is closer to 40 percent then the number of working days lost each year rises to a staggering 560 000 days.
With the SANDF in the process of downgrading its troop levels—the army has reduced its complement from 100 000 to 70 000—its future looks bleak.
Engelbrecht said the government had to decide whether to remove the infected soldiers from combat roles, or whether to remove them when they became too ill to function.
South Africa cannot test soldiers without their permission, except those who accept postings to United Nations missions.
The SANDF expects 50 000 soldiers to be tested for HIV during the next five years. Those who test positive will be able to enrol in a programme called Project Phidisa at six army sites around the country.
The first tests were carried out on January 19 at No 1 Military Hospital, Pretoria, and at the military base in Mtubatuba.
SANDF members infected with HIV/Aids received their ARV drugs for the first time on February 2. Four additional sites will be opened at No 2 and No 3 Military Hospitals, in Phalaborwa and Umtata, before the end of this year.
The Phidisa project was partly prompted by the cabinet’s decision on August 8 last year to provide comprehensive health care for people with HIV and Aids.
The project’s medication budget for this year alone is more than R2-million and it covers only members on the programme.
According to Phidisa’s data management co-ordination and operations centre director, Colonel Jabulani Msimang, the project’s budget for the rest of the year is more than R4 million.
While the Phidisa project will be used in researching the effects and effectiveness of anti-retroviral drugs, it also paints a clearer, if stark, picture of the extent of Aids in the armed forces.
With South Africa increasingly becoming involved in peacekeeping efforts in the rest of Africa, the risk of exposure to the disease is also increasing. There are 3 000 South Africans doing duty in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of Africa.
The UN requires soldiers to be tested before they are deployed on UN missions, effectively sending only healthy soldiers out of the country.
This week’s conference painted a very bleak picture of the fighting fitness of the SANDF and highlighted the urgent need for intervention before the army itself succumbs to the country’s greatest enemy—Aids.