In March (2018) our small CWS Timor Leste team traveled to Oecusse, which is an enclave of about 70,000 people in one of the country’s most isolated district; it is almost entirely land-locked within neighboring West Timor (Indonesia) and has the Savwu Sea on its northern border. Because Timor Leste’s national defense forces are strategically based here, and because a key CWS project here for most of the past decade has been to support HIV education and prevention activities for soldiers, sailors and their families, our team prioritizes visiting here as often as possible to check in with our project partners, who are members of the defense forces themselves. Troops in Oecusse routinely join information-sharing sessions facilitated by their medics and supported by CWS staff. “Since HIV infection is a serious health threat, and since there is no cure,” says Moises Mendonca, a soldier based in Oecusse, “I need to know more about it.” He continued, “Honestly, I didn’t know much about HIV and [because there is a lot of ignorance of the facts about it], I rely on our medics and CWS staff to give me true information about HIV/AIDS”.
In seeking to ensure that Timor Leste military members, and their families, would have the best information possible, at the 2011 start of the key CWS partnership for HIV education and prevention, a baseline survey of soldiers’ and sailors’ knowledge, attitudes and practice (behavior) in relation to reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS, confirmed that Moises Mendonca was far from unique. At that time, only about 20% of respondents knew that unprotected sex made HIV infection possible. It was also clear from the survey that many respondents believed the myths about HIV transmission being through mosquito bites (35.2%) or sharing a meal with an HIV+ person (35.8%). Needless to say, the intervening years have given CWS team members and our energetic partners in Timor Leste’s national defense forces, a chance change the situation dramatically.
“The HIV information sessions have been most important for me,” says Moises; and this simple sentiment is echoes widely among his colleagues and their family members. If HIV and STD infection remains a possibility [which, particularly and characteristically among military forces, it does] the educational program CWS pioneered with funding from the US Department of Defense HIV/AIDS Prevention effort, will remain a vital public health service. Now, as CWS prepares to transition full leadership and management of this program to Timor Leste’s national defense forces, there will be follow-up survey to see how people’s knowledge, attitude and practices have changed since 2011. And, as CWS team members move on to help the world’s still-youngest nation address others of its development challenges, we will stay connected to our original partners and be ready to help them in any way we can so our legacy continues and the country is better, in some small measure, for it.
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