UN Puts AIDS in Spotlight in Conservative Saudi Arabia
October 6, 2005
Last week, the UN launched an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign aimed at teenagers in Saudi Arabia, where discussions about sex are taboo and homosexuality and adultery are criminal offenses. The UN Development Program's Mayssam Tamim said Wednesday she hopes more schools across Saudi Arabia adopt the prevention workshops for teens. "We would like to work with the government to see how this can be implemented," she said.
Twenty-five teenagers in Riyadh participated in the first workshop, acting out receiving positive and negative results for HIV blood tests and discussing how to avoid discriminating against people with AIDS. "The workshop does not touch on delicate issues, but it does trigger questions," said Tamim. But the understated workshop is still seen as provocative to some Saudis. "I had kids who said: 'We can't tell our parents what you said today,'" she added.
While HIV infection rates in Saudi Arabia remain low, experts fear the conservative society's reluctance to talk about sex could hinder efforts to contain the virus. "We are the region with the lowest prevalence," said Tamim, "but it is increasing at a fast rate." "We want to assume people are sticking to religious beliefs and not having illicit sexual relations," she said. "We cannot get ourselves to say this is happening, although it is."
Government figures show 1,181 HIV cases and 989 AIDS cases recorded through the end of June. These figures exclude foreigners, who make up one-third of Saudi Arabia's adult population. Foreigners who test positive for HIV are quickly deported, while Saudi patients receive free antiretroviral treatment.
A 2004 Saudi medical study said 4,761 foreigners, more than three times the number of Saudis, tested HIV-positive between 1984 and 2001. It noted that the disparity may result from the fact that more foreigners are tested than Saudis, and it called for a strategy that "conforms to Islamic rules and values" to prevent a "rapid spread of this virus."
10.05.2005; Dominic Evans
This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.