BEIRUT, Dec 7, 2011 (AFP) - In an Arab world rife with social stigma,
government inaction and often limited access to education and medical care,
experts warn that an HIV epidemic is on the rise.
"In the Middle East and North Africa, the HIV epidemic has been on the rise
for the past decade," said Aleksandar Sasha Bodiroza, HIV/AIDS adviser at the
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
"The number of people needing treatment in the region has spiked from
approximately 45,000 in 2001 to nearly 160,000 in 2010," Bodiroza told AFP.
"This has put the Middle East and North Africa among the top two regions
globally with the fastest growing HIV epidemic."
A United Nations report released this month said the number of people
becoming infected with HIV has slowed worldwide, with AIDS-related deaths also
on the decline as access to treatment becomes more widespread.
But the Arab world has been slow to catch up. Here, HIV contraction rates
and AIDS-related deaths are increasing as public awareness, government
response and access to adequate medical services have been slow to progress.
While there is little reliable data on the Middle East and North Africa,
the United Nations estimates between 350,000 and 570,000 people live with the
HIV virus in the region, home to a population estimated at more the 367
One study, published recently on the open-access Public Library of Science,
put infection rates among men who have sex with men at 5.7 percent in Egypt's
capital Cairo -- and at 9.3 percent in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
And while some countries have begun to take small steps towards fighting a
growing but hushed problem, shame and stigma show very little sign of waning
in a region where same-sex relationships and premarital sex are often a crime.
That stigma has become a fact of life for one young man in Beirut, reached
through a group that provides free support for people who are HIV-positive or
suffer from AIDS.
"If I were to sum it up in one word, I would say my life is one big
secret," said the 29-year-old, who has known he is HIV-positive for three
"While I came out to my family a long time ago, this is something I have
not shared with them. I could never burden them with that."
Infection is typically concentrated among high-risk groups, including
injecting drug users, men who have sex with men and sex workers and their
"Life for someone carrying the HIV virus is very difficult... they suffer
an inability to talk about the disease freely with people who are close to
them, and we have cases where individuals were kicked out of the family," said
Brigitte Khoury, clinical psychologist at the American University of Beirut
"So while some families do offer support, it's mainly a life of secrecy,
deception and living in fear of the worst."
That fear, experts say, is often what keeps HIV-positive individuals from
"Stigma and discrimination are among the primary reasons that people living
with HIV or key populations at higher risk of HIV infection do not have access
to essential HIV services," Bodiroza said.
"These two factors also limit the ability of governments and civil society
to provide services."
Many states in the Arab world require that foreigners take an AIDS test
before issuing visas or residency permits.
Making headlines this month was the case of a South African journalist who
was deported from Qatar after being diagnosed with HIV and sacked by the
satellite network Al-Jazeera.
Section27, a public interest legal group based in South Africa, has asked
the country's delegation to the International Labour Organisation to file a
complaint against Qatar.
But some more liberal countries in the region have begun to publicise the
problem, with a media campaign in Egypt and Lebanon hitting the airwaves and
billboards last month.
The "Let's Talk" campaign, which runs until the end of December, is
organised by UNFPA in partnership with the two countries' health ministries,
and encourages people to be tested.
The campaign, which in Lebanon stars a former beauty queen and wildly
popular band Mashrou3 Leila, also supplies a list of free and anonymous
testing centres for both countries.
But despite the tentative progress, experts say governments are less likely
than ever to turn their attention to the rising epidemic in a region gripped
by political upheaval.
"The common thread that links all countries in the region is the impact of
stigma and discrimination, which are (among) the primary reasons that people
living with HIV or at-risk populations do not have access to essential
services," said Bodiroza.
"Without strong leadership, it is unlikely that these issues will be fully
or properly addressed."