Imams join low-key campaign against AIDS

HIV/AIDS is still a taboo subject in staunchly Islamic Mauritania, but awareness of the disease is growing. The authorities have recently persuaded religious leaders to start preaching about the dangers of AIDS and the need to stop its spread.

While refusing to endorse the use of condoms through sermons in the mosque, Muslim clerics have agreed to spread the message that fidelity in marriage can help to protect people from infection.

The government has also pledged to make antiretroviral drugs available in 2004 to the 500 Mauritanians registered as living with AIDS to improve their quality of life.

According to the National Council for the Fight against AIDS (CNLS), which was only created last year, one percent of the desert nation's 2.5 million population is HIV positive.

However, voluntary AIDS testing of pregnant women has shown an HIV prevalance rate of 2.6 percent and some activists reckon the real figure for the nation as a whole is much higher.

Cote d'Ivoire is the country in West Africa with the highest number of HIV positive people. According to official figures, 10 percent of its population aged between 15 and 49 are HIV positive.

But in Mauritania's southern neighbour Senegal, whose government has been widely praised for it enlightened attitude towards HIV/AIDS, the official infection rate stands at less than one percent among the 15-49 years old age bracket.

In Mauritania, Imams, preachers and other Muslim clerics have agreed to press home the message that individuals must practise fidelity in marriage, although Islamic law allows men to have up to four wives. They are also outspokenly opposed to homosexual sexual relationships.

But in this conservative society where some cyber cafés forbid their clients to look at pornographic sites, advocating condom use is not part a high-profile part of the present anti-AIDS strategy.

Pharmacies and health centres do discreetly give away condoms free to married men who ask for them. But they charge single men 50 ouguyas (18 US cents) each to buy them, and because of the shame and stigma felt, relatively few come forward.

Besides, the price is dear for the majority of impoverished Mauritanians who live on less than one dollar a day. For them a night of safe sex costs more than a loaf of bread, which can be purchased for just 40 ouguya (14 US cents.)

Talking publicly about AIDS is still frowned upon, and ignorance still permeates Mauritanian society. Even educated middle class men and women are often reluctant to discuss it.

One well-spoken taxi driver told a visitng IRIN correspondent in November that the Holy Koran protects against AIDS, and that "good Muslims" who follow the holy book never get the disease. Unless, he added, they or their partner stray outside the relationship.

However, the government is cautiously trying to increase awareness and tackle the problem.

Health ministry officials said antiretroviral(ARV) drugs would be made available in Mauritania for the first time in 2004.

At present, only 12 of the 500 people registered as living with AIDS in the country receive ARV treatment, but they are forced to go to Senegal to get it.

Voluntary testing for HIV/AIDS is also available in some hospitals, but only for in-patients. The service is mainly offered in southeastern Mauritania, which has a very high rate of emmigration - and therefore a constant flow of people returning to rural communities from distant parts.

Health Ministry officials said the government planned to continue its low-key information and awareness campaign, paying special attention to pregnant women. By closely monitoring this group, the authorities hoped to gain more accurate statistics on the scale of the pandemic in Mauritania by the year 2005, they added.