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IRAQ: Rise in numbers living with HIV/AIDS, says health ministry

BAGHDAD, 19 January 2006 (IRIN) - The health ministry has announced an increase in newly reported cases of HIV/AIDS over the past few months, the first such pronouncement since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.

According to Dr Wadah Hamed, director of the AIDS Research Centre (ARC), 26 new cases have been reported since October 2005, most of them in the capital, Baghdad. "From the total new cases discovered, eight are of Iraqi nationality and the rest are foreigners from different countries,” he said.

He added that the findings came as a result of routine blood tests of people entering the country, carried out at border entry points.

By law, every person who enters Iraq must be tested for HIV. If this is not possible, entrants have a week to receive free testing at any of the ARC’s 17 laboratories located throughout the country.

Anyone who does not comply can be subject to deportation. “We have successfully controlled the situation and deported those foreigners infected to prevent further sexual transmission and guarantee the safety of Iraqis,” said Abd Obeid, a senior official in the interior ministry.

According to Obeid, more than 15 foreigners who tested positive for the HIV virus have been deported so far. The policy of deporting those carrying the virus is common in Arab countries and has been criticised by health experts.

But government officials in Iraq say they barely have enough medicine to treat patients.

Treatment and cases

Iraqi patients, meanwhile, receive free treatment at the centre, which currently provides support to about 75 people.

"Patients in our centre are freely treated, and also receive US $50 monthly from the health ministry for extra expenses through a special programme designed for them and their families," said Hamed.

Patients also receive anti-retro viral treatment, supplied by the health ministry through support from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The first instance of HIV/AIDS was discovered in Iraq in 1986. Since then, around 261 cases have been reported to the health ministry, including a number who have since died.

According to Hamed, in 73 percent of recorded cases the source of infection has been infected blood transfusions, while 16 percent were through sexual transmission (heterosexual and homosexual) and five percent through mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy.

There have been no reported cases of transmission by drug addicts sharing syringes.

Most of the patients are between the ages of 28 and 48 and the reported rate of infection is higher for men than women. Most women who have been infected have either acquired the virus from their husbands or through transfusions.

Public awareness

A prevention campaign is scheduled to kick off in February, largely as a result of the recent health ministry announcement.

The Iraqi Organisation for Sexual Health and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (IOSH & STD), a local NGO, has already launched programmes aimed at educating young people through the media. The organisation has also presented lectures explaining the importance of prevention from an Islamic perspective.

"Our main duty is to increase the awareness of young people about AIDS risks and drugs in schools and universities to prevent further problems," said the NGO’s director, Dr Karim al-Mufergi.

Health workers note that their work has traditionally been dogged by popular misperceptions about the virus and its potency.

“I’m sure that I’m healthy and don’t have AIDS,” said Baghdad resident Abu Khalid (not his real name). “Even if I sleep with prostitutes, I won’t get this disease, which is only for weak foreigners.”

“I don’t need to take these tests,” he added.

The government is taking the trend seriously. This is reflected by the fact that many Iraqi Sharia courts require medical reports proving that both parties are HIV negative before marriage certificates can be granted.

“We’re aware of the problem and are working hard to control the situation,” Salah Ali, a senior health ministry official, said. “Medicine has been imported and counselling is also being offered.”

According to Hamed, though, the current political instability wracking the country can only be expected to compound the problem. “We have to open our eyes to the possibility of more cases, because with the increase of foreigners in Iraq – which is under military occupation – it’s not out of the question,” he said.

Theme (s): Conflict, Gender Issues, Health & Nutrition, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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