Ugandan army winning hearts, minds and foreskins

KAMPALA (AFP) - Ugandan troops have been marking national army week celebrations with a public health drive that includes distributing condoms and circumcising men as part of efforts to battle Aids.

"There are several activities that we are doing. Among them is medical outreach. The UPDF (Uganda People's Defence Force) is a unique army. It is unique is many respects," army spokesman Paddy Ankunda said on Tuesday.

"Circumcision is a proven method to reducing the risk of HIV/Aids and we think that by doing that our people will reduce the risk of infection," he told AFP, adding that army doctors have in recent days carried out 330 circumcisions, 630 HIV tests and distributed 43,500 condoms.

Scientists have found that male circumcision can significantly reduce the chances of HIV infection because the foreskin has a higher concentration of HIV-receptors than the rest of the penis and is prone to tears during intercourse, providing for a HIV entry point.

"We are taking care of the entire procedure. We have installed ourselves in already existing health centres and constructed appropriate facilities," spokesman Ankunda said.

"But that is just one activity. We are distributing mosquito nets, we are treating malaria, treating eye infections, dental complications, all sorts of things," he added.

Ugandan army week leads up to the Feb 6 anniversary of a 1981 attack against an army barracks by rebel forces fighting then-president Apolo Milton Obote, which heralded the start of a war that ended in 1986 with current President Yoweri Museveni taking office.

Each year the army marks the anniversary with public service activities in designated areas of the country. This year operations are taking place in the west of the country, although spokesman Ankunda said Ugandan troops across the country and those based in South Sudan and Somalia were also active.

"We do so many things. We do medical outreach, we work with other agencies, we redo roads that are broken in the countryside of the region we select. We do mobilisation for the people against disease and poverty," he said.

Uganda was once heralded as a success story in the fight against HIV, with President Museveni among the first African leaders to speak openly about Aids and the government mounting a highly successful public awareness campaign in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Infection rates initially dropped from double to single digits, but according to the most recent statistics, from 2011, the national prevalence rate rose to 7.3 per cent from 6.4 per cent in 2004-05 - with health officials blaming increased complacency.

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