Northern African and Middle Eastern countries, including the United Arab Emirates, should acknowledge the existence of drug use and commercial sex work to effectively prevent the spread of HIV, Ehab Al Kharrat, senior program adviser on HIV/AIDS for the United Nations Development Programme, said recently, the Gulf News reports.
According to U.N. estimates, about 68,000 people contracted HIV in the region last year, and new cases increased by 300% between 2002 and 2004. In the U.A.E., injection drug use and unprotected sex are the primary routes of HIV transmission, according to the Ministry of Health. In March, the health ministry reported that 508 people were living with HIV/AIDS in the U.A.E., but some health experts believe the actual number is much higher. Al Kharrat said that Arab countries and the media need to alter drastically their HIV/AIDS campaigns, adding, "Arab states should change from just disseminating information campaigns to wide-scale evidence-based and outreach campaigns."
Nada Al Marzouqi, head of U.A.E. Ministry of Health's HIV Committee, said that more research is needed to determine if commercial sex workers and injection drug users in the U.A.E are widespread enough to include them in HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. "HIV is a problem, (but) we need proper studies and proper research," Al Marzouqi said, adding, "We have to see if drug abuse and sex workers are a problem in the country. Maybe they are a problem in other Arab countries, but not (necessarily) here." Al Kharrat said that Arab states need to accept certain facts about drug use and sex work if they want to prevent an HIV/AIDS epidemic. He added, "Almost all the Arab states still have a window of opportunity because [they] have low prevalence of HIV/AIDS and [they] can manage the epidemic package if [they] start now" (Muslim, Gulf News, 11/16).
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