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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Military seeks ways to cope with AIDS

Military seeks ways to cope with AIDS

Military seeks ways to cope with AIDS

Members of the armed forces are at a high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, military

representatives told participants at the Second National AIDS Conference in Phnom

Penh on October 1. They likened the epidemic to a war which needs to be fought with

condoms and education programs.

Keo Rachna, HIV/AIDS officer for the army, said that soldiers carried spades to dig

trenches to protect themselves, but commanders should instead encourage them to carry

condoms.

"This war should disappear from Cambodia," said Rachna. "One bullet

in the war kills one person, but if a man gets HIV it spreads to many people and

kills them."

However, he said, it was clear that some were reluctant to use condoms.

"Military [personnel] say they are not afraid of HIV, and they are afraid of

not having sex. The social pressures to be masculine are strong."

Dr Song Ngak, Family Health International/Impact (FHI) men's health officer, agreed

that peer pressure increased the risks.

"HIV is still a problem - they are usually away from home, and the military

environment drives them to have sex," Dr Ngak said. "For example, they

[are pressured] to smoke, to drink, to have more than one partner - to be a real

man."

More than 71,000 members of the armed forces and police are participating in an HIV/AIDS

awareness campaign which involves peer education and distributing free condoms.

The program, run by FHI and the Ministry of Defense, involves a 'friend educate friend'

campaign which aims to reduce transmission by the military of HIV and other sexually

transmitted diseases. The three-year program has been a success, said Dr Ngak, with

more soldiers using condoms with sex partners.

However a Buddhist cleric in the audience, the Venerable Seng Somany, compared brothels

to land mines, and described condoms as simply bullet-proof jackets. He said the

military should abandon sex rather than using condoms.

"If military officials know that there is a land mine, why don't they ask their

people to stay away from it?" he asked. "Why do you want them to wear bullet-proof

vests and allow them to walk on the land mines?"

Keo Rachna replied that sex was inevitable.

"[Sex] is a requirement of humans, and even you must have sex feelings,"

he told the monk. "When soldiers come for education [some of them] haven't had

sex for three or four months, and I have to insist they have condoms."

The last survey in 1997 showed that around 7 percent of the military were HIV positive.

That figure, a military spokesperson said, had "reduced a lot" under the

peer education program.

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