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S. African Plays Down AIDS Threat

One-fifth of troops are infected. But 'there is no alarm here,' the defense minister says.

October 08, 2003|From Associated Press

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — 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 nations hit hardest by HIV and AIDS, with about 4.7 million South Africans, roughly 11% of the population, infected with the virus and an estimated 600 to 1,000 dying of 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% of service members are infected, Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said.

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 Assn.

"There is no alarm here," the defense minister said.

The defense minister'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 because troops with weakened immune systems couldn't be deployed to places in Africa where they would be exposed to many 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.

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