Guwahati: India, alarmed at the prospect of a military hit by AIDS, has begun training wives to promote awareness about the disease especially in the revolt-hit northeast.
“The rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in the armed forces has alarmed authorities,” said a statement from India’s Ministry of Defence at the end of a two-day workshop on 13 June to educate army wives about prevention.
“Wives of serving soldiers, drawn from the three services, will form peer group leaders who will disseminate awareness among peer groups of about 20 wives of soldiers in the field units.”
Almost 0.03% of troops have HIV, the government says, far lower than the infection rate among the country as a whole. But servicemen in remote areas are at much greater risk.
Some 100,000 army and paramilitary troopers are deployed for long periods in the rugged jungles of several northeast states against some 30 guerrilla groups waging a variety of separatist insurgencies.
The Assam Rifles, a premier paramilitary force of 55,000 troops in the region, admitted this year that 180 of its soldiers had HIV--an infection rate 10 times higher than the army faces as a whole.
“We are taking healthcare issues very seriously with annual mandatory medical checkups, including blood testing, for all the ranks,” Narender Singh, an army spokesman in Assam, told AFP on 14 June in the state’s main city.
A member of the Armed Forces Wives Welfare Association from tiny Manipur state said military spouses were being trained to discuss AIDS with couples and other wives.
“Wives of soldiers are the best counsellors to educate their husbands and are now being made aware how the virus contracts and the need to tell their husbands how to remain safe while out of home,” said the army wife, who asked not to be named.
The northeast, home to around 40 million people, has been declared one of the country’s high-risk zones with nearly 100,000 people infected with the virus, particularly in Manipur which borders Myanmar.
The spread of AIDS is fueled both by prostitution and by drug injections, with the region a major conduit for heroin from the ‘golden triangle´ of neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.
“In most cases we have found the soldiers mingling with the locals and then going for unprotected sex to fight stress and fatigue,” said S.I. Ahmed, chairman of the AIDS Prevention Society, a community health care group in Assam.
“Life away from families for a longer duration is one of the reasons. I have scores of defence personnel coming to our clinic for voluntary counseling and testing.”
India has the most HIV/AIDS cases in the world at a high-end estimate of 5.7 million, though the figures are disputed and may be revised down sharply next month in a new study.
India also has one of the largest armies in the world with nearly 1.8 million personnel, besides an estimated 1.3 million paramilitary troopers.