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A study by U.N. doctors says African refugees are unjustly discriminated against in the continent's fight against HIV and AIDS. The study debunks assumptions that refugees are more likely to carry the deadly virus than the general population. VOA's Michael Drudge has attended a briefing with U.N. scientists in Nairobi, and he has filed this report. The study conducted for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees examined the prevalence of HIV infections among 800,000 refugees in seven African countries.
The agency's chief HIV-AIDS expert, Dr. Paul Spiegel, says that in five of the seven countries, refugees actually were less likely to have the infection than the general population.
"For numerous reasons, it was always considered that refugees will have a higher HIV risk, but the mistake has been that people extrapolated that risk to say, 'well, they' therefore' must have a higher HIV infection.' And we are finding that this is not the case," he said.
Dr. Spiegel says the biggest factor in determining if a refugee is HIV-positive is the rate of infection in their home country, not in the country they have fled to. But he says that, because the facts are so little understood, discrimination against refugees is widespread.
"Refugees in many places are treated as pariahs: 'These people have HIV, and, therefore, we are no going to associate with them.' And that has affected everything from their interaction with the community, and, I believe, it has also affected host governments from actually trying to create integrated programs," he said.
He pointed out that, of 29 African countries hosting at least 10,000 refugees each, less than a third of the governments offer HIV-positive refugees any internationally-funded drug treatment.
The U.N. HIV expert for East Africa, Dr. Paterson Njogu, says many communities blame outsiders for spreading the virus, because they deny they have a local AIDS problem.
"We have tended to blame people who are coming from outside our community - tourists, refugees, traders, who are coming from outside our community. The denial of the nationals, they looked for a scapegoat. And they literally found one in the refugee," he said.
The U.N. refugee agency is on a campaign to raise public awareness of the facts regarding refugees and HIV-AIDS. Officials say a key goal is making sure refugees have the same opportunities as the general population of the host country for prevention, care and treatment of the disease.