SANDF takes up arms against AIDSLiving with AIDS #159


Duration: 4min 29sec

KB: Project Phidisa was announced on Worlds AIDS Day, December 01st of 2003, and this week opened its doors to the first batch of clients at No. 1 Military Hospital, in Pretoria. By Tuesday (20/01/04) lunchtime, the second day of operation, nine force members had already been started on treatment. The programme aims to reach 10 000 members in its first year of operation. It’€™s a huge number. So, what is the scale of the epidemic within the South African army? Colonel Andrew Ratsela is the Chief Specialist Physician and head of the Internal Medicines Department at No. 1 Military Hospital.

Col. ANDREW RATSELA ‘€“ Definitely, we do not know how big the problem is. We don’€™t have the numbers at the moment. And we’€™d like to find that out’€¦ We’€™ve been speculating about 17 %, 20 % and so on. No one knows’€¦        

KB/Col ANDREW RATSELA ‘€“ KB: But then the launch of this programme would be regarded as an admission that yes, there is a big problem within the Defence Force?

Col. ANDREW RATSELA – Yes, on a daily basis when we look at these patients we find that there are more patients that we admit to the hospital who have HIV and AIDS. We can’€™t really put down the number. But the problem is big. And I just want to emphasise that the problem is not different from the general population. In other words, we don’€™t have more soldiers with HIV than the general population. What is happening in the National Defence Force is happening outside as well.

KB: Defence analyst, Helmoed Romer Heitman, concurs.

HELMOED ROMER HEITMAN ‘€“ I would be surprised if it went over 20 %’€¦ I don’€™t believe that you will find, overall, the infection rate in the military is much different to the infection rate of the same age group outside. On the one hand, yes, soldiers get around more and maybe they can play around more. But on the other hand they also get all the lectures and the horror stories from the Military Health Service as to what can happen and what can go wrong.

So, I think the two will balance each other out. At the end of the day, I suspect you’€™ll find the prevalence within the military will stabilise at about the same, or possibly, even a little bit lower than the prevalence in the same age group outside.            

KB: Project Phidisa is divided into two phases ‘€“ Phidisa 1 and Phidisa 2. The former will investigate the exact prevalence of HIV within the army and is expected to reach 50 000 soldiers in its first year. The latter will offer treatment to those soldiers already known to be HIV positive and succumbing to AIDS related illnesses. In line with the imminent national roll-out plan, the treatment will comprise of anti-retroviral drugs, nutrition and traditional medicines. Four regimens of anti-retrovirals will be administered. The challenge now is to mobilise army members to volunteer to be tested. Captain Masilo Marumo is an epidemiologist working on Project Phidisa.

Capt. MASILO MARUMO ‘€“ ‘€œWe still have to go back to the people and say, come to Phidisa, come and test’€¦ Initially we had people who were going on deployments. So, that’€™s how we got the stats in most cases’€¦ that they discovered that they are HIV positive or negative. Or some of them (it’€™s) because something happened. When you go to the hospital, then they say the reason you are like this is because you are HIV positive. So, we still have a very serious battle to do to make people aware of Phidisa.

KB: Defence analyst, Helmoed Romer Heitman, says mobilising army members to voluntarily come forward for HIV testing will be a huge challenge, which might impact on military readiness.

HELMOED ROMER HEITMAN ‘€“ It’€™s a challenge in the sense that the Defence Force has said it intends in the future not to recruit people who are HIV positive. Now, that presents a bit of a problem because, if I understand the law correctly, you’€™re not actually allowed to force somebody to declare their status’€¦ They’€™ll have to modify the law to allow the Defence Force some sort of exclusion’€¦ As for people in the service, the challenge also is to identify. And I think one of the aims of the project is to get people to voluntarily say, listen I’€™ve got this problem, because then you can put them somewhere where they can work productively and they’€™re not at risk and don’€™t present a hassle.              

KB: Phidisa is a Sesotho word, which means to make better, or to prolong lives in AIDS terms. Amongst those to benefit is Sergeant Philisiwe Ntshangase, a data capturer in the Defence Force, who was diagnosed with HIV nine years ago.

Serg. PHILISIWE NTSHANGASE ‘€“ Project Phidisa is going to eradicate the discrimination and the stigma around HIV and AIDS. And we’€™ll not lose our members who are educated; who still want to live.


KB: The service will be expanded to five other sites, the Mtubatuba sickbay in

KwaZulu-Natal, the No. 2 and No. 3 Military Hospitals in Cape Town and Bloemfontein, respectively, and the Phalaborwa and Umtata sickbays, over the course of its first year.  

E-mail Khopotso Bodibe


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