Peacekeeping missions are fighting HIV, UN expert says on eve of World AIDS Day

Peacekeeping missions are fighting HIV, UN expert says on eve of World AIDS Day

As preparations for Wednesday's observance of World AIDS Day gather steam, a United Nations official today stressed that HIV-prevention programmes targeting peacekeepers can help stop the epidemic's spread in areas where the UN is operating.

Roxanne Bazergan, HIV/AIDS Policy Adviser in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, told the UN News Service that she works with experts deployed in the field to reduce the risk of peacekeepers either contracting or spreading HIV. Awareness-raising activities, condom distribution and related medical services also benefit nearby communities.

The Security Council first took up the issue of HIV/AIDS in January 2000, adopting a landmark resolution which forms the basis for her work, as does the mandates of the 2001 UN General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS, which identified peacekeepers as a high-risk group operating in a high-risk environment.

Security Council resolutions on peacekeeping operations now mention the importance of sensitizing peacekeepers about HIV. "It's seen as an increasingly central component because of the high risk," said Ms. Bazergan, a former research fellow with King's College in London who gained experience by studying how HIV affects militaries in Africa and Asia.

The UN has policy advisers in nine missions, with a tenth being established, while all others have a focal point coordinating HIV response activities.

In addition to providing information, UN officials are setting up voluntary counselling and testing while reaching out to local communities. As an example, Ms. Bazergan cited collaboration between the UN and religious leaders in Liberia aimed at enabling them to use their sermons to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.

UN peacekeeping missions often use their own radio broadcasts to disseminate HIV prevention information. In Liberia, these programmes were recognized by local churches, which gave an award to the broadcaster, Col. Joyce Puta.

To maximize the effectiveness of their efforts, the UN peacekeeping advisers work with their partners in other UN agencies, Ms. Bazergan said, citing cooperation with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Soldiers, she pointed out, are, "far from home, young, mobile and of a sexually active age" - all factors which could lead to unprotected sex. Further adding to the risk, peacekeepers may have to deal with people who are injured and can become infected if they do not use protective gloves.

In order to overcome denial about the prevalence of the epidemic, the UN organizes "living testimonies" of HIV-positive people. Ms. Bazergan cited the example of a Liberian army veteran and who lost two wives to AIDS. Hearing experiences like these "wakes people up," she said, "because it's real and it's before them but you wouldn't know it to look at him."

She noted that UN peacekeepers are deployed in numerous countries with high infection rates - notably those in sub-Saharan Africa as well as Haiti - but cautioned that no place is free of HIV. "You can't hide behind a low prevalence because you still can't tell [who is infected]."

"We don't want to be part of what makes that change," she stressed. "We as a peacekeeping mission do not want to aggravate the spread of the epidemic."

Regarding allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers serving with the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), she said discussions about what constitutes appropriate behaviour could serve to stem these egregious actions.

"What we are increasingly trying to do is to involve local women's groups so that they actually talk to peacekeepers and explain why it is these women may be turning to sex work to survive - it's because they have no other options - to try and give a face to the people who are surviving by that means and humanize it."

Assessing the progress achieved since she took on the job in January 2003, Ms. Bazergan hailed the fact that HIV policy advisers are now a standard component of major peacekeeping operations.

She pointed out, however, that it is difficult to assess success given the fact that there is no mandatory testing or way to determine how someone became infected. But she added that the UN will work next year with the United States Centers for Disease Control to conduct a survey in Liberia aimed at gauging the impact of HIV-prevention efforts.

Overall, she said, the aim is to change behaviour. "Everything is about prevention, prevention, prevention because there is no cure and the vaccine is way off."