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Monday, 25 June, 2001, 18:11 GMT 19:11 UK
Teaching truck drivers about Aids
UNWFP long-haul truck drivers
UNWFP have planned sessions to educate their truckers on the dangers of Aids
By Nita Bhalla

Life on the road for the United Nations World Food Programme's (UNWFP) truck drivers is not easy.

They travel thousands of miles each day from Port Djibouti to Ethiopia, carrying much-needed grain to feed those in areas where drought has become a persistent nightmare.

Of course we know about Aids, but like most people, we don't think it will affect us

Wondimu Hailu
Their job is certainly worthwhile, but research shows that long-distance truck drivers are one of the highest risk groups for contracting the deadly HIV virus.

Truckers spend months on the road without seeing friends or family. Lonely and vulnerable, they often form local relationships, or seek casual sex.

The risk of HIV/Aids is undoubtedly high and it is a risk that will be passed on to their spouses and partners back home.

"It's not an easy job. We see our families maybe once every three months, which makes life very lonely. We often stop at small hotels or bars on the way to our destination, and bar girls are in plentiful supply," said 35-year-old trucker Wondimu Hailu.

"Of course we know about Aids, but like most people, we don't think it will affect us," he adds.

Training programme

UNWFP in Ethiopia has now recognised this, and last week the organisation embarked on an HIV/Aids training programme to educate its 2,300 long-haul truck drivers.

Ms Beletu Mengistu is the executive director for the Integrated Service for Aids Prevention and Support Organisation (ISASPO), the local NGO contracted to run the programme.

An Aids sticker on an Ethiopian truck reads 'Life is like a rose, look after it'
An Aids sticker on a truck reads 'Life is like a rose, look after it'
"The objective of this project is to raise the level of awareness of truck drivers in Aids prevention. We are expecting to cover a number of issues such as the transmission of the virus, prevention, risk factors, the impact of HIV and Aids, behavioural change and also about using condoms," said Ms Mengistu.

It is the UNWFP's first large-scale initiative in the fight against the epidemic. Ben Fultang, the organisation's acting director in Ethiopia, promises to continue to monitor the project and provide support for truckers.

"We have been working with these drivers in Ethiopia for many years now, and we want to continue to work with them," he said.

"We will collaborate with other agencies like UNAids and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to follow up this programme. IOM specialise in areas of counselling and testing, and will support those truckers who wish to know their HIV status."

Deadly disease

The UN agency responsible for HIV and Aids issues, UNAids, estimates that 10.6% of the population of Ethiopia is HIV positive. According to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, one in 13 adults are infected - in urban areas this figure increases to one in six.

Ethiopian UNWFP truck driver
Truck drivers work away from home for long periods
Truckers attending the programme have welcomed the training session. Netsanet Belete is 25 years old and has been a truck driver for four years. He says that knowledge of HIV/Aids is varied among his colleagues.

"Some of us have a good knowledge of the situation, but the majority don't. The problem is that we are always concentrating on long haul drives, and we don't think about the dangers. This kind of training will really help us."

The first Aids case was discovered 20 years ago. Since then, 21 million people around the world have died of the killer disease, and a further 36 million continue to live with it. Most are in Africa.

UNWFP now hope their drivers will not only carry grain and other food supplies, but as they leave their distribution centres, they will also be armed with the facts on HIV and perhaps even a few condoms.

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See also:

25 Jun 01 | Africa
How to spend Aids fund
25 Jun 01 | Americas
Annan demands Aids action
08 Jul 99 | Aids
Global race to curb Aids
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