August 23, 2006
Despite having the lowest HIV rates of any world region -- estimated at just 0.2 percent by UNAIDS -- the Middle East and North Africa could be on the verge of an AIDS nightmare, according to experts.
Widespread ignorance about AIDS fuels a deeply ingrained prejudice against those with a disease often linked to sex. Other factors that could drive an epidemic are the population's young age, taboos against homosexuality and mass movements of people fleeing wars in the region.
"We are not deemed [normal], HIV is considered punishment, we have no place in society," said one Jordanian man with HIV who traveled to the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto.
In Pakistan, a survey of 1,200 students found that most lacked adequate knowledge of AIDS, and the amount of empathy afforded patients varied depending on how they became HIV-infected. "The attitude towards the illness is positive [only] if the disease happens because of blood transfusion," said Wafa Abu Ayyash of the Center for Sustainable Development and Community Health in Bethlehem, who conducted the research.
At the conference, HIV-positive people from the region shared stories of mistreatment, discrimination and violence. "My family rejected me when they discovered I was ill," said a Moroccan woman, age 40.
Dr. Samir Anouti of UNAIDS' regional support team called for more visible anti-AIDS efforts throughout the region, adding, "Only 5 percent of those in need are receiving antiretroviral drugs, and there is increased evidence of risks and vulnerability."
In a positive development, the UN Development Program has been hosting workshops to advise Muslim imams on how to include AIDS in their sermons.