U.S. Army helps GDF in HIV/AIDS scheme
By Wendella Davidson
December 11, 2006
THE Guyana Defence Force (GDF), with assistance from the United States Army, is putting in place measures to safeguard its soldiers against HIV/AIDS.
An ongoing project for the GDF is sponsored by the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) and implemented by the Centre for Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance Medicine (CDHAM) HIV/AIDS prevention projects, as part of the U.S. PEPFAR supported activities.
The PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) programme, headed by U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Mark R. Dubul, had its genesis in an unprecedented commitment by the American government to support the efforts of nations most affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
It is the single largest programme ever launched by a single nation for an international health initiative - a five-year, 15 billion dollar, multi-faceted approach to combating the disease in more than 120 countries around the world.
The goal of the Emergency Plan is to support treatment of two million HIV infected people, back prevention of seven million new infections, and support care for 10 million people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
For the GDF aspect of PEPFAR, services and support are provided by the U.S. Department of Defence and decisions made by the Military Liaison Office (MLO) headed by Chief Military Liaison (CML) at the U.S. Embassy here, Major James Enos, in support of the programme for the project areas as outlined in the Country Operational Plan (COP) for the GDF.
Technical support is provided by the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) while the programme for the local army is being executed by Ms. Beverly Gomes-Lovell, Field Project Manager/Counsellor attached to the GDF.
Additionally, services are subcontracted for training by the Ministry of Health and various local groups, including the Guyana Safer Injection Project (GSIP) and Youth Challenge Guyana and the USAID Guyana HIV/AIDS Reduction and Prevention (GHARP) project.
The National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS) assists by providing condoms and educational information upon request, while testing kits and biohazard bags are supplied by the Civil Defence Commission (CDC).
On December 1 last, the GDF joined other organisations worldwide to observe World AIDS Day under the theme “Accountability” with planned activities simultaneously at five bases.
The highlight of the day’s activities was the official opening of the new Volunteer Counsellor Tester (VCT) site at the GDF Coast Guard, Ruimveldt location and the establishment of another VCT site at Base Camp Stephenson, Timehri.
Ranks were also shown a film on sexually transmitted infections after which they heard hands one from a PLWHA (person living with AIDS) who shared his/her experiences.
Gomes-Lovell said this was an eye opener for those present.
The aim of the hands on experience, she explained, was to encourage the soldiers to “want to be safe, stop worrying about HIV and get tested, the earlier the better.”
These newly established sites, Gomes-Lovell told the Guyana Chronicle, would in addition to benefiting the soldiers at the base, also facilitate testing civilians from the surrounding environs.
She said the sites are places where “despair will be replaced by hope and where the challenge of HIV and AIDS is being met by dedicated, competent health professionals who are saving lives – setting an example for the entire nation.”
According to Gomes-Lovell, the Army has broken new ground in that it now has 28 military/civilian personnel who have been trained as Voluntary Counsellors for VCT. Their work will be supplemented by 17 medical ranks/health care providers who received training as Peer Educators.
Other highlights included:
* * 232 recruits and 32 officer cadets receiving Abstinence and Be Faithful messages and STI statements during a two-month period
** Several other ranks at various bases receiving condoms/other prevention messages.
* * 15 medical ranks and three doctors received timely and informative training in medical transmission/blood safety/injection safety, with the awareness expanded with updated procedures that were implemented and being practiced immediately
* * The increased availability and access to condoms at all bases and outlying GDF locations
* * Targeting border bases with information, education and communication material on HIV
* * Current developing of prevention programmes for HIV infected soldiers
Gomes-Lovell said that by supporting a broad movement of civil society organisations in their campaigning around this theme, the World AIDS campaign hopes to develop “a sense of joint identity and common purpose and ensure that more people are made aware of the AIDS epidemic this year than ever before.”
She assured that the GDF will join in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
And, on behalf of the GDF, she thanked the U.S. Department of Defence MLO for the assistance given in support of the HIV/AIDS programme.
Major Enos said the U.S. Department of Defence programme is only a small part of the Guyana country plan and they recognise that people in the military are from a higher risk group.
“The type of people who voluntarily join the military are generally more likely to voluntarily accept risk in all aspects of their lives whether it is their work (military) or free time. This, combined with an organisation with the bulk of its personnel who are young and single, make the direct military to military programme between the U.S. Department of Defence and the Guyana Defence Force a very important one”, he said.
He said, too, that the experience the U.S. Department of Defence has in dealing with the same issues can be shared easily because they are talking about essentially the same makeup of personnel and organization.
“The programme has continued to grow over the last three years of funding, but it has only picked up momentum since we employed the Field Coordinator to continue to push the programme from within the GDF. The day to day push that Mrs. Gomes-Lovell has given this programme has greatly benefited the Guyana Defence Force,” Enos added.
“The HIV/AIDS pandemic is not an issue where we can measure success and see clear results, like a good vehicle maintenance programme or a weapons qualification exercise. We can measure inputs and record statistics, but it is impossible to measure what the statistics would be had we done nothing to address the problem”, he said.
“Some things that we can say about the PEPFAR programme as a whole in Guyana are this -- anyone living in the urban areas of Guyana can be tested and receive counselling if they choose to do so and they are invited to choose this through various media sources. (If you are reading this and have not chosen to get tested, why not?)”
According to Enos, Anti-Retro Viral drugs are free to anyone who needs them and there is no waiting list for treatment. Anyone on treatment now has access to medical laboratories comparable to those in the U.S. Care and support programmes are widely available to the public. The results of laboratory upgrades have also helped Guyana in detecting Tuberculosis and other AIDS-related illnesses.
Success for the Department of Defence is being achieved in Guyana by finding a willing partner, the GDF, in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, he posited.
GDF Chief of Staff, Brigadier Edward Collins, said the Army is ever grateful to the U.S. for their assistance in getting the programme on stream for soldiers in Guyana.
He hailed the untiring efforts of Gomes-Lovell in ensuring that the programme reaches each and every soldier and Enos for ensuring that the programme is a reality.
Reiterating his gratitude on behalf of the Army for the programme, Collins noted that able bodied men visit various communities from time to time.
Noting that Guyana is on record as having the largest concentration of PLWHA in this part of the region, outside of Haiti, he emphasised that it is imperative for the Army to make efforts to ensure that its soldiers are educated.
“This we have been doing with the limited resources from our budget and through bilateral arrangements which led to the USSOUTHCOM consenting to offering the programme which has been quite beneficial”, he said.
“The programme facilitators are able to visit all the bases, speak with the soldiers and have also established counselling sites, for which we in the Army are happy,” he said, adding that if a soldier does not adhere to the advice given during counselling, he/she can render himself/herself incapable of serving in a worthy profession.
Alluding to his message on the occasion of the GDF 41st anniversary last month, the Brigadier said he reminded the soldiers that they are the most important asset of the Army and implored them not to be careless and to strive always to be respected by the people of this land.
Collins said that since the programme was implemented, the level of HIV/AIDS contraction has been kept to the minimum.
He urged soldiers to take the counselling afforded them seriously, seek to understand their role as an important asset to the Army and society and strive to be responsible and good citizens.