Addressing the burden of HIV/AIDS in military and mine workers

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UNAIDS has recently published a global report on the AIDS epidemic which claimed that the number of new HIV infections among adults and children has dropped by 33%. This decrease represents a big step towards the achievement of one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which aims at halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, HIV/AIDS is thriving in many parts of the world, especially among certain occupations, such as military and mine workers.

Evidence has shown that soldiers and miners have a higher prevalence rate of HIV than other professions. In 2004, the Zimbabwe Ministry of Defense acknowledged that the HIV infection rate was 3% higher among the military than the civilian population. In regard to HIV among miners, a study held in Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland stated that the prevalence rate of HIV among miners reaches 21.7% in these countries.  

Although the natures of these occupations are essentially different, they share similar characteristics that increase the risk of HIV infection. Both miners and military personnel usually fall within a highly sexually active group, and they often have to spend considerable time away from their families. During their stay, they are more likely to have multiple concurrent partners, thus increasing the risk of HIV infection and transmission.

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In addition, military and mine workers are highly mobile populations, moving both within and across national boundaries. They are distanced from traditional norms and support systems that regulate behavior in stable communities, and coupled with feelings of boredom, and loneliness, this can result in disregard for health issues. These environments also create a feeling of anonymity where there are no community sanctions for individual errant sexual behaviors, which might lead to increased promiscuity and disregard for issues like HIV/AIDS.

Moreover, mining and peacekeeping are highly hazardous occupations, and HIV/AIDS is often perceived as a more distant or less dangerous threat when compared to the more immediate dangers miners or military personnel face during their working hours. These attitudes and beliefs increase the probability of engaging in risky sexual behaviors.

Furthermore, the chance of infection through wounds and contaminated blood is higher in military and mining settings. In times of emergency, military and miners might receive blood transfusions from donors who are HIV positive. HIV education is also many times lacking among these specific groups. Miners and soldiers are often sent to work without any sufficient knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases.

HIV testing in military and mining settings is often difficult due to the consequences this might have on employment or deployment. In many cases, military personnel and miners prefer not to undergo a HIV test, even if voluntary counseling and testing are made available. Fear of dismissal, discrimination or stigmatization highly influences their decision not to undergo any tests.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic in these two settings cannot be further ignored. If the Millennium Development Goal of decreasing the number of people being infected with HIV/AIDS is to be achieved, more focus should be given to the development of new or better policies and initiatives to address HIV/AIDS prevention, care and awareness among military personnel and mine workers.

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