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International News
North Africa, Middle East: HIV/AIDS Groups Aim to Nip a Rising Threat

January 28, 2005

International health officials are worried by rising HIV/AIDS infection rates in North Africa and the Middle East. While regional HIV/AIDS rates are still among the lowest in the world, the number of people living with HIV in North Africa and the Middle East rose 13 percent in 2004 to an estimated 540,000, or about 0.3 percent of the population, from 2003. UNAIDS says the region has the world's third-fastest rate of increase in new infections -- 26 percent from 2002 to 2004. Globally, 1.1 percent of the population is HIV-infected.

In most North African and Middle East countries, apart from Sudan, HIV infection is well below the 5 percent level. But according to Dr. Khadija T. Moalla, a UN Development Program coordinator in the region, there is just "a small window of opportunity to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS" to ensure that threshold is not crossed.

Once HIV infection reaches 5 percent of the population, researchers have observed that "the virus spreads very fast, sometimes increasing by as much as tenfold in five years as has been the case in several southern African countries," the World Bank said in an AIDS regional update on North Africa and the Middle East. At that point, people transmit the disease faster than society reproduces, said professor Sandy Sufian, founder of the Global Network of Researchers on AIDS.

Moalla is concerned that the region's religious and cultural taboos prevent people from discussing ways the disease spreads, such as unprotected sex between a man and woman and sex between men and men. "Taboos about the disease come from its relationship to [these] practices that are considered un-Islamic," said Sufian. UNAIDS noted in its 2004 AIDS update that in most countries in the region "efforts to defuse the social stigma and institutional discrimination" about the disease are "few and far between."

In December in Cairo, UNAIDS called more than 80 religious leaders together to seek a common AIDS strategy.

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Excerpted from:
Wall Street Journal
01.27.2005; Susanna Howard

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