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The Middle East and North Africa

December 2001

In the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the visible trend is also towards increasing HIV infection rates, though still at very low levels. Existing surveillance systems remain inadequate, but it is estimated that 80,000 people acquired the virus in 2001, bringing to 440,000 the number of people living with HIV/AIDS. The need for early, effective prevention is becoming manifest throughout this region.

Unfortunately, factors driving the epidemic are still too seldom systematically analysed in most countries in the region. As a result, HIV/AIDS responses are rarely based on a clear understanding of infection patterns or knowledge of particular high-risk groups.

Based on current knowledge, however, factors putting people at risk are varied, though sexual intercourse remains the dominant route of transmission. A local study in Algeria has revealed prevalence rates of 1% among pregnant women. Outbreaks now appear to be occurring elsewhere, including in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, where all but a fraction of the 570 new HIV infections reported in 2000 were among drug users. Djibouti and the Sudan are facing growing epidemics that are being driven by combinations of socioeconomic disparities, large-scale population mobility and political instability.

The rate of HIV infection is increasing significantly in other vulnerable groups. Among prisoners in the Islamic Republic of Iran, rates of HIV infection have risen from 1.37% in 1999 to 2.28% in 2000. Besides the Sudan and the Republic of Yemen, all countries in the region have reported HIV transmission through injecting drug use. Unless addressed promptly through harm reduction and other prevention approaches, the epidemic among these subpopulations of injecting drug users could grow dramatically and spread into the wider population.

There are also signs that the double disease burden of HIV and tuberculosis is growing in some countries. Rates of HIV infection among tuberculosis patients are rising and, by mid-2001, stood at 8% in the Sudan, 4.8% in Oman, 4.2% in the Islamic Republic of Iran and 2.1% in Pakistan.

At the same time, the political will to mount a more potent response to the epidemic is visible in several countries, some of which are introducing innovative approaches. Examples include the mobilization of nongovernmental organizations around prevention programmes in Lebanon, and harm reduction work among injecting drug users in the Islamic Republic of Iran.


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