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Iranian Doctors Ordered Not to Turn Away AIDS Patients

December 30, 2002

Doctors in Iran have received a health ministry directive not to turn away patients with HIV/AIDS as part of a new effort to control the spread of the disease, medical workers said Monday. Doctors consulted by people with HIV or AIDS-related illnesses have been ordered to catalog the cases and provide immediate treatment, or else face an undisclosed punishment. "Any refusal to accept those infected with the AIDS virus is against the law and because of the social problem which it creates, any violation will be followed up," the state Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the directive, signed by Deputy Health Minister Mohammad Ismael Akbari, as saying.

The directive, addressed to all private and state medical facilities, also called for "all-out support of the nation and the country's health centers for AIDS patients."

"There is a long way to go but this is a positive step," said a medical doctor at the forefront of the fight against AIDS, who asked not to be identified. "Before we can even fight the disease, the stigmas need to be removed and doctors need to get on board."

The latest official statistics estimate 21,000 HIV-positive people in Iran, with 4,237 people having AIDS. An estimated 65 percent contracted HIV through infected needles used to inject drugs, particularly in prisons, which are packed with drug offenders. Some 300,000 people are believed to inject morphine or heroin in Iran.

Since taking drugs is a criminal offense, drug users are reluctant to seek treatment. In addition, because of the societal taboos related to sexual relations in Iran -- where sex outside marriage and homosexuality are strictly prohibited and subject to harsh punishments -- those who contract HIV sexually are also reluctant to seek medical help. Treatment is complicated by a lack of access to antiretroviral therapy. Authorities are debating how to cut the spread of AIDS among drug users, with needle exchange and methadone treatment under consideration, medical sources said.

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