01 December, 2010

HIV/AIDS: the Middle East's challenge

World Aids Day. In 1988, the UN General Assembly stated that the World Health Organization had declared December 1st as the day people, worldwide, take time to remember those who have been lost to this devastating disease, and recommit ourselves to saving as many lives as we can, now and in the future. Where does Yemen and the rest of the Middle East stand in this campaign?

For years now, Middle East Arab nations have not done much, in campaigning against HIV/AIDS; in-fact, most Arab nations have ignored the disease and have bothered little about the pandemic. The Middle East and all Muslim nations and societies, by the sheer discipline of the Islamic way of life, have had one of the lowest infection rates in the world. A study reveals that: with the exceptions of Djibouti, Somalia and Southern Sudan, HIV transmission in the Middle East and North Africa is among the lowest worldwide, according to the region's first large-scale study on HIV and AIDS. But pockets of higher transmission exist in specific populations, including networks and contacts of injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, and female sex workers and their clients.

That low rate of infection is no more: though, compared to the rest of the world, this region has very few people infected with HIV or living with AIDS; in the last decade, according to the UN - the numbers of people becoming infected with HIV has more than doubled; growing from 36,000 new cases in 2001 to 75,000 last year. The annual report from UNAIDS reveals that, while AIDS is declining in its infection rates in hard-hit regions like sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world; two regions: the Middle East and Central Asia - both predominantly Muslim, are witnessing growth in the annual number of new infections. Infections by various means; read this report.

Very fortunately for Yemen, for almost a decade now, with international assistance and aid, it has addressed and tackled the challenge that HIV/AIDS poses. It has been one of the first few countries in the region to address the HIV/AIDS within its national development agenda. A National HIV/AIDS Strategy was prepared in a participatory manner and approved by the Government in 2001. Compared to two years ago, Yemen has intensified its campaign against the disease; it has and is intensively and extensively spreading awareness through the populace; it is building more and more centers and making counseling and drugs more easily and freely available in all parts of the country. And that effort is paying; yet, HIV continues to spread. To date, those who have officially registered in the country number about - 3,450 and new cases registered since January this year, number about 260. This might seem very low, but officials state that for every one infected person officially registered, there could be ten more who have not been recorded.

Other countries in the region - due to this fast spread of the pandemic, are now taking note: read this and this. A few years ago - just 3-5 ago, go to most Arab countries and mention HIV, very few people had even heard of it; even clinics and hospitals, especially those in the Arabian Peninsular - except in Yemen - would try to avoid handling AIDS cases or even care about it. Not any more: tentative steps have been taken or are now being taken by all countries in the region to face up to the challenge. AIDS is unlike any other disease affliction: it starts very slowly; unnoticed. Then slowly creeps, spreading its tentacles; the more people get infected, the more it gains pace and the faster it spreads. And unlike any other very dangerous disease, it has this very discomforting factor of mainly spreading through one of the most private and to many of us, sacred, zone of our lives: sex. And then, as it gains pace and speed - like a drop in a basin of water, that one drop causes a ripple that spreads all around. That 'drop' of HIV in our societies and nations here, are still very few and have not caused strong ripples; yet; but if unchecked, if strong, concerted efforts are not made, in another decade, who knows: each of us living, here, in this region; could be affected. Either by being infected or by having a relative or a friend or some one you know having HIV. We do not have any other option but one: we have to commit ourselves to saving as many lives as we can, now and in the future.

*Above is the International AIDS Conference logo for this year which was held in Vienna, Austria.