Department Observes World AIDS Day, Notes Contributions
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2009 The Defense Department is commemorating World HIV/AIDS Awareness Day today with a broad range of activities with partner militaries aimed at education and prevention, and with progress toward developing the first-ever vaccine.
“Working Together,” the theme of this year’s worldwide commemoration, describes the role the department plays in the overall U.S. government effort, as well as how U.S. military members work hand in hand with other militaries around the world to address the disease, said Rick Shaffer, director of the Defense Department’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Program.
Shaffer called recently announced progress an Army-sponsored program is making toward developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine one of the most exciting results of that collaboration.
The research began in 1995 when the Thai national army approached the United States to establish a world program to monitor HIV.
The fruit of that partnership, which includes the Thai Ministry of Public Health, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the National Institutes of Health, Sanofi Pasteur and Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases, is an experimental vaccine that dramatically reduces the risk of infection with the HIV/AIDS virus.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of progress for a vaccine, and it’s been shown for the first time that it may be possible to prevent HIV/AIDS,” Shaffer said.
With an HIV/AIDS vaccine “still a number of years down the road,” the U.S. military supports the overall U.S. government HIV/AIDS program largely by helping partner militaries with their own prevention, care and treatment programs.
The Defense Department’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Program, based at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, serves as the department’s executive agent for the technical assistance, management and administrative support of the global HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment for foreign militaries.
The U.S. military has provided partner militaries support, technical assistance and resources for their own programs since 2001, Shaffer said. That effort expanded in 2003 with the launch of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which State Department officials describe as the largest commitment any country has ever made to combat a single disease.
The Defense Department currently has HIV/AIDS prevention programs in 80 countries around the world.
Shaffer called these partnerships a way to enhance medical security cooperation – just as military exercises and exchanges promote other aspects of security. That’s important for overall security and stability, because the prevalence of AIDS weakens governments, militaries and economies and can hinder peacekeeping efforts.
“It’s been a real benefit for both the U.S. military, as well as the partner militaries, to be part of PEPFAR and have this mission,” Shaffer said.
Today, in recognition of World HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the U.S. military is supporting a variety of activities around the world to increase awareness and promote prevention.
U.S. Africa Command sponsored a forum of health specialists, doctors and staff yesterday at its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, to discuss positive trends in combating HIV/AIDS.
Maj. Wes Palmer, a health specialist in Africom’s health division, reported improvements since 2008, with the most dramatic decline yet in new infections in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the United Nations and World Health Organization, the region’s annual HIV-related mortality dropped 18 percent since 2004, and Sub-Saharan Africa experienced a 25-percent decrease in new infections between 1995 and 2008.
Meanwhile, U.S. and partner militaries are coming together today through a variety of special activities to provide camaraderie and fun – as well as HIV/AIDS education, counseling and testing, Shaffer said.
In Kenya, counseling and testing is being offered during local soccer matches, beauty contests and body-building contests. In Liberia, a kickball and volleyball match is bringing together the host country’s military, U.S. Navy Seabees and other partners. In Uganda, the military, U.S Embassy, Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Agency for International Development are sponsoring a game show based on the American TV show “Jeopardy” that’s designed to increase HIV awareness and prevention.
If there’s a single lesson from the U.S. and global HIV/AIDS efforts, it’s the importance of comprehensive programs with established policies and priorities and top-level emphasis, Shaffer said. While optimistic about the collective progress the programs are making, he emphasized that it’s far too soon to claim victory over HIV/AIDS.
"The Department of Defense is proud to be an implementing partner in what has been a bold call for action abroad and an equally bold call for a new way of doing business here at home," he said. "We look forward to continuing to answer the call to come together in the common cause of turning the tide against the HIV/AIDS pandemic."