Colonel Mbaye Khary Dieng of the Senegalese Armed Forces made one point very clear: “This is a global security issue.”
One thing you can count on in Senegal is rolling power outages. In fact, that’s how our meeting with the Colonel began. What we learned about the Senegalese Armed Forces’ approach to national security, however, was less expected.
Colonel Dieng enrolled as a cadet at age the age of 11 in 1965. Now, forty-six years later, he commands a team of military personnel that includes an Obstetrician-Gynecologist , a biologist, a pharmacist, a psychiatrist, a social worker and a medical school dean.
Senegal has largely been spared the devastating economic and health effects caused by HIV. In this small, westernmost African nation, only 0.7 percent of the general population (12.5 million) has tested positive for the disease. Interestingly, according to a 2005 Combined Behavioral Surveillance Survey, the prevalence rate in the military was also 0.7 percent – the same as in the general population.
“The reason this country enjoys such a low rate of HIV,” Colonel Dieng explains, “is because we were not afraid to recognize this as a major problem from the very beginning.”
He recalls that commanding officers, as far back as 1978, openly talked about safe sex and encouraged the use of condoms. So when scientists discovered how HIV is transmitted in the mid-1980s, this message became even more important as a preventative measure. Realizing the need to do more to protect his troops, Colonel Dieng expanded the role of the military to include sites that specifically address the prevention of mother-to-child-transmission of HIV, provide voluntary counseling and testing, laboratory services, training centers for health professionals and psychological support. To reach more people, many of these services are brought directly into communities.
As a result, more than 85 percent of the Armed Forces have voluntarily been tested for HIV. More than 16,000 soldiers and family members, as well as 5,000 national police benefit from the services offered by the Colonel’s team. He maintains this level of care by working closely with national health officials and an international community of donors, including the US Government through the Department of Defense HIV/AIDS Prevention Program, that provide funding and technical support to the cause.
“The Colonel understands that sowing the seeds for long-term stability requires examining the root causes of instability,” says Assistant Administrator for Global Health at USAID, Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez. “There’s no question that poor health affects the military’s ability to protect the country. His efforts have been critical to preventing the spread of HIV.”
The Senegalese Armed Forces also operate peacekeeping missions in 15 countries across Africa, Middle East and the Caribbean. For a variety of reasons, including poor education, sexual violence or broken health systems, the rates of HIV are typically much higher in countries experiencing conflict.
The Colonel reflected on the fact that soldiers posted abroad often engage in riskier behavior because social barriers are removed; they have expendable money; and sometimes, on a cause of loneliness, they seek companionship. The information and services provided by the Colonel’s team—which are supported and reinforced by the hierarchy within the Armed Forces—increases the likelihood that Senegal can continue its peacekeeping missions with less risk to the health of troops and the people of Senegal.
“I have 10 men in a brigade on our northern border,” says Colonel Dieng, “if five of them were sick, how can we protect the border?” To drive home his point, the Colonel added, “What if 60-80 percent of the soldiers were HIV positive, how would we protect this country?”