HIV/AIDS in North Africa and the Middle East
For many years it was thought that the Middle East and North Africa had managed to avoid the HIV/AIDS epidemic that had gripped so many of their neighboring countries. Religion and its strict rules in governing sexual relationships played an important part in this.
However the latest figures show that the pandemic sweeping the world has managed to draw this region into its clutches.
It’s estimated that there are currently 540,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2004, 92,000 new cases were diagnosed (20,000 up on the previous year). AIDS claimed the lives of a further 28,000 in 2004.
The figures could be much higher – the United Nations believes there may be as many as 1.4 million affected. Unfortunately the region doesn’t have adequate monitoring particularly among high risks groups such as prostitutes, homosexuals and injecting drug users (IDU), so the true extent of the problem remains unknown.
Not surprisingly the worst country affected is Sudan, particularly in the south where a massive heterosexual epidemic has a strong grip. More than 7% of people there are believed to be HIV positive. Poverty and civil war are to blame. Villages have been razed to the ground in the bitter conflict and women and young girls are systematically gang raped by so called soldiers. The spread of infection through mass rape is reflected in the figures which show that more women are infected than men. Infection among pregnant women is eight times higher in the south of Sudan (where the civil war is raging) than in the north.
A lack of anti HIV drugs means more children are being born with the virus. It’s believed to be a similar situation in Somalia, although no actual figures are available.
Because of the lack of anti HIV drugs there appears to be a lot of infected people moving between countries in search of medication. Tunisia for example has provided free anti HIV medication for several years, so people from neighboring countries such as Libya are believed to cross the border hoping for treatment.
Injecting drug use has been blamed for a rise in infections in Libya, Iran and Bahrain. In Libya 90% of all known HIV infections are thought to come from dirty needles.
There’s also a rise in the number of sex workers with the infection. In the Yemen, around 7% of all prostitutes are HIV positive, although again region wide it is hard to know how prevalent this is because of a lack of reliable figures.
In all honesty very little is known about whether HIV is transmitted through gay sex in this region mainly due to religious beliefs and the ideology that sex between men is a sin.
There could be whole pockets of infections that aren’t known about, or worse still, acknowledged. Egypt is one of the few countries to address this problem and is now monitoring the transmission of the virus among gay men.
Countries such as Iran, Morocco, Algeria and the Lebanon are also working towards prevention programs among both heterosexual and homosexual groups.
But others such as Iran and Libya prefer to acknowledge HIV/AIDS as a disease caused solely by injecting drug use and any money towards education and prevention is firmly pushed that way.
Other than in the more enlightened countries, even basic preventative measures such as free condoms and safe sex education, are still sadly lacking in the region.