This Swaziland HIV clinic isn’t your typical doctor’s office. It’s located near a truck stop, and nurse Thabsile Sithole’s patients are truck drivers and the prostitutes they visit.
“It’s not easy for me to go to a hospital or a regular health clinic because I’m always on the road except when I’m very sick,” explains South African truck driver Petros Thwala. “But I’ve been able to come here. They gave me condoms to protect myself from diseases and counseled me to be faithful.”
Sithole’s clinic operated by the Northstar Alliance, an unusual charity conceived by the World Food Programme.
“AIDS was having a huge impact on the transportation business in Africa,” explains Luke Disney, the charity’s executive director.
“Ten years ago a survey showed that a South African truck driver has a work life expectancy of five years,” he explains. “Transport workers have always brought diseases with them, starting with the Black Plague during the Middle Ages. Today’s truckers have higher HIV infection rates than the general population. But in Africa their infection rate is twice as high.”
Sub-Saharan Africa, with 10 percent of the world’s population, has 67 percent of the world’s HIV cases. In Swaziland, where 25 percent of the population has HIV, every second truck driver is infected. That’s why the Northstar Alliance may be crucial in solving the region’s AIDS crisis. “African truck drivers aren’t ignorant about what’s going on,” explains Disney.
“Truck driving is taxing, and it’s hard to get to a regular hospital or doctor’s office when you drive an 18-wheeler. Leaving your truck unattended is dangerous; people may steal your cargo,” he says.
By contrast, Northstar Alliance “wellness centers” are located at truck stops and open during truckers’ rest times, usually 4 p.m. until midnight.
Today the charity runs 17 such centers in Swaziland and eight other southern African countries.
It’s still too early to tell if the trucker approach will curb Africa’s AIDS crisis. “But we know that more people are coming in to get tested,” says Disney. “And we know that they’re following our advice. We’re going through huge quantities of condoms.”