FOR the past three years, Song Phal has awakened every morning in the middle of a simmering dispute. The 49-year-old soldier is posted at the front line in the Preah Vihear temple area, where a border dispute with Thailand has occasionally erupted in firefights.
But for health officials, he and other soldiers here represent a separate front in the battle to contain the spread of the HIV virus.
Soldiers are considered to be at high risk of contracting HIV, and with troops living for long stretches of time in confined quarters in often remote
areas, previous studies have suggested extra caution is needed to prevent the spread of the virus among this group.
Song Phal says there are soldiers who take advantage of the prostitution available in the area.
“Since before the clash, there have been some prostitutes travelling up the mountain to sell their services, or sometimes individual soldiers call them to buy their services,” he said.
For Song Phal though, the risks are too great. He said he never goes down the mountain to look for sex.
“I am more afraid of AIDS than I am of bullets,” he said.
Health officials are now working on a plan to boost HIV-prevention efforts in the area in recognition of the risks stemming from the buildup of troops following recent political tensions.
The National AIDS Authority, the Ministry of Defence, UNAIDS and the health NGO Family Health International are considering implementing an education campaign for soldiers stationed at Preah Vihear.
“For us, we still consider not all, but some soldiers to be high-risk,” said Song Ngak, FHI’s deputy director.
“There are tensions along the border. A lot of military are mobilised and deployed. New recruits may come in. These people may not have received HIV education like the others.”
The scheme is still in the early planning stages, but Song Ngak said the project’s proponents hope to be able to begin information campaigns and peer-support programmes as early as next month if possible.
In the late 1990s, soldiers were considered among the most at-risk groups for HIV infection, Song Ngak said. One Ministry of Health survey estimated the HIV prevalence rate among soldiers at 7.1 percent – far above the national average at the time.
“This was one population that was driving the HIV epidemic before 1997,” Song Ngak said. “When they go out they go to karaoke, or go to brothels. That’s the practice normally.”
Authorities and NGOs stepped in with gradual campaigns, encouraging soldiers to drink less and get tested for HIV/AIDS. Using a peer education system involving respected role models, health officials brought HIV education campaigns to individual barracks around the country.
Song Ngak said there has been no recent comprehensive study to gauge HIV prevalence in soldiers, but he believes the education efforts have paid off.
Nationwide, Cambodia has shown success in reducing its HIV prevalence rate among adults to a level that stands at an estimated 0.7 percent this year.
However, with that success comes lingering concerns. The emphasis on HIV education for the military has lessened in recent years, Song Ngak said.
“If the HIV prevalence rate is quite low, people might say it is not the area we need to put our money into, from the donors’ point of view,” Song Ngak said. “The military population will still be the one group I feel that could be left behind. We have to keep our eyes open.”
Officials with the National Aids Authority could not be reached for comment yesterday.
For his part, Uk Kea, 53, believes he and other soldiers are well aware of the risks posed by HIV. “I have never taken services from prostitutes,” he said. “I used to be a monk and I am honest to my wife.”