December 15, 2011
Rates of HIV continue to rise along with the number of AIDS-related deaths in the Arab world, despite progress made globally, new data show. The region's fight against HIV/AIDS is being stymied by social stigma, government inaction, and limited access to medical care, experts say.
The Middle East and North Africa are among the top regions with the fastest growing HIV epidemics, said Aleksander Sasha Bodiroza, HIV/AIDS adviser at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
"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 key populations at 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. Without strong leadership, it is unlikely that these issues will be fully or properly addressed."
In addition, same-sex relationships and premarital sex often are criminalized in the region. "If I were to sum it up in one word, my life is one big secret," said a 29-year-old HIV-positive man in Beirut. "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."
Some more liberal countries are starting to respond, with a media outreach launched last month in Egypt and Lebanon over the airways and on billboards. The "Let's Talk" campaign, organized by UNFPA and the countries' health ministries, features a former beauty queen and a popular band and will run through December. The campaign encourages people to get screened for HIV and lists free and anonymous testing centers.