One-Fifth Of South Africa's
Military Has AIDS

By Elliott Sylvester
Associated Press Writer

CAPE TOWN -- At least one-fifth of South Africa's military is infected with the virus that causes AIDS, the defense minister said Tuesday. But he sought to dismiss concerns about the effects of the disease on the armed forces.
South Africa is one of the hardest-hit nations by HIV and AIDS, with some 4.7 million South Africans, roughly 11 percent of the population, infected with the virus and an estimated 600 to 1,000 dying from the disease, and related complications, each day.
The government is working to reduce the infection rate in society at large and in the military, where 20 to 22 percent of service members are infected, Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said.
The figure is in line with earlier findings. The private Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria has previously reported an infection rate of 23 percent for ground forces and an overall rate for the military of slightly more than 20 percent.
Lekota accused supporters of the country's former apartheid regime of trying to destabilize the government by portraying the military as ravaged by AIDS.
"All of this noise every day about HIV/AIDS and so on, that suggest that this country is about to collapse as a result of HIV/AIDS, are really unfounded," Lekota told foreign envoys in Pretoria, according to the South African Press Association.
"There is no alarm here," the defense minister said.
Lekota's statements drew criticism from AIDS activists and some defense experts.
"As a minister he should be leading the fight against HIV, yet he is misleading the country," said Pholokgolo Ramothwala of the Treatment Action Campaign, an activist group. "Whether Lekota likes it or not, AIDS is the biggest killer and health issue we have ever had to face."
Helmoed Heitman, an analyst for Jane's Defense Weekly, said the rate of infection could have serious consequences for the military since troops with weakened immune systems couldn't be deployed to places in Africa where they would be exposed to many different diseases.
"These soldiers are also a risk in combat," Heitman said. "If they get wounded and there is blood all over the place who is going to treat them?"
Len le Roux, a defense researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria said the military has indicated that AIDS is a major concern. "They have identified it as a top priority, a serious problem that requires the dedication of top defense management," he said.
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