In 1986, Ahmad was five years old when he discovered that he was living with HIV. "I was one of some boys who suffered from haemophilia and got treatment at a hospital. One day I was told at the hospital to make a blood test as they had discovered that Vactor VIII blood imported through a French company was contaminated and it transferred AIDS to the haemophilia patients," he said.
Ahmad said his life was transformed due to the stigma HIV/AIDS attracts in Iraq. "Here, AIDS is not understood like, say, hepatitis - it’s culturally unacceptable, AIDS patients are looked at as sexually delinquent," he added.
Ahmad remembered leaving the hospital following the test, only to be followed by police, who forced him to report to the Tuwaythah hospital for infectious diseases, now called Ibn Zuhr, where he was effectively held prisoner along with 70 other people for two years. "Then they agreed I could go home, but I had to sign a paper saying I would not mix with other people, and if I am studying, we have to do that at home," he said.
According to figures from UNAIDS, by the end of 2000 a cumulative number of 117 AIDS and 150 HIV infections had been reported to Iraqi health authorities. The majority of infections had occured among young men with hemophilia through infected blood products. Infection figures are considerd fairly reliable given the extensive testing for the disease - in 2000 more than half a million HIV tests were carried out in Iraq. Although the total number of people living with HIV remains small in Iraq, many have reported numerous infringements of their civil liberties, including having to sign a form agreeing only to marry others with the virus.
Treatment and care of infected people remains rudimentary in most parts of Iraq. Of 173 persons with AIDS reported in Baghdad in 1985, only 73 were still alive, Dr Waddah Abbud, a dermatology and venereal diseases specialist, told IRIN. He said most of these patients had been infected through blood transfusions, but many more who did not register had gone on to marry and have infected children.
Abbud, who heads the AIDS Studies Centre (ASC) and directs the National Programme to Combat AIDS, said the postwar situation was worse, as most people registered with AIDS no longer attended the hospital, which was looted of all its equipment. This meant that monitoring the disease had become impossible, as patients no longer received their monthly checkups.
"More importantly, we don’t have transfusion centres, as all the laboratories are looted, so it means we can't control the spread of the disease," he said. Since the war in March and April, resources at clinics in Baghdad for treating those living with HIV/AIDS are still limited. Although funds from the World Health Organisation (WHO) have financed some diagnosis kits, medicines needed - like anti-retrovirals such as AZT, which costs US $300 per patient per month - have all been looted.
Fadela Chaib, the WHO spokeswoman in Baghdad, told IRIN that although Iraq does not have a large number of officially registered AIDS patients, HIV/AIDS could well be under-reported "for cultural reasons". WHO and the ASC have put together a plan to bring HIV-positive patients back to the health centre by paying them US $20 a month on top of the small monthly allowance they currently receive.
The WHO and the ASC hope that through the few patients who are in touch with the centre, others will hear about the money and thereby be attracted back to the hospital or the centre.
Meanwhile, Ahmad told IRIN that he counted himself lucky to belong to a well-off and understanding family able to afford the medicine needed to control his steadily worsening condition. He knows of six patients who had to stay at the hospital because they were rejected by their families and, since the war, nobody knows where they are.