The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 1 June criticised Egypt and Syria for not being explicit enough in the fight against HIV/AIDS and for threatening to derail last week’s UN General Assembly meeting on the subject.
“Fifty thousand people will die this week while delegates debate any reference to vulnerable populations,” said Joe Amon, director of HRW’s HIV/AIDS programme just before the beginning of the UN conference. “Yet this vulnerability to HIV/AIDS is aggravated by the failure of global leaders to face facts, speak truths and protect rights.”
According to HRW, the few countries to have succeeded in confronting the HIV epidemic have been those which “have provided comprehensive information on HIV transmission to their populations, addressed the vulnerability of women and girls to violence and abuse, ensured access to condoms, clean needles and methadone and expanded access to anti-retroviral drugs”.
Rights groups working in Egypt have issued numerous statements highlighting the importance of making a more determined effort to combat the spread of the pathogenic virus. At present, the health ministry is in contact with some 800 HIV/AIDS patients in Egypt, according to UNAIDS Country Officer Maha Aon. “However, official estimates indicate that there are a total of between 5,000 and 12,000 people living with the virus in Egypt today,” she added.
Although this number is proportionately small in comparison to other countries in Africa, Egypt could eventually face an epidemic, Aon said. Among the chief problems Egypt faces in terms of effectively combating HIV/AIDS is the issue of denial. “Up until now, despite the existence of awareness campaigns and support from religious leaders, many continue to believe that Egypt is not actually at risk,” Aon said. “That was the mistake initially made in Africa, where it was once believed that HIV/AIDS was a white man’s disease. Now it has become an African disease.”
Also problematic is the assumption that moral preaching can limit the spread of the virus, say activists. “More targeted, scientific awareness programmes must be undertaken to prevent the spread of the disease,” said Aon. “It’s been proven again and again that moral preaching isn’t sufficient.” Despite cultural sensitivities, Aon suggested that free condoms be distributed among threatened groups, including street children, intravenous drug users and sex workers.
Other issues at play in HIV/AIDS prevention include a lack of scientific knowledge about the disease. “Unfortunately, most people have yet to understand exactly how HIV/AIDS is transmitted,” said Wagdi Abdel Aziz, director of the Cairo-based South Centre for Human Rights. “There needs to be a clearer, more dedicated approach by the media.”
In Syria, meanwhile, where discussion of HIV/AIDS remains taboo due to the perceived association of the virus with illicit sex, international agencies have struggled to get their message across. Dr Fouad Mujallid, World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Syria, says that NGOs are redoubling their efforts to break the barrier of silence. “The WHO and the other UN agencies in Damascus agreed at our last monthly meeting to coordinate efforts on raising HIV/AIDS awareness,” he said. “We’re working alongside the ministries of health, education and social affairs, as well as local NGOs, to educate people on how to take precautions.”
From when the first HIV/AIDS case was discovered in Syria in 1987 until the end of 2005, only 377 out of 4 million people who undertook blood tests have tested HIV positive, according to the first-ever official statistics published by the health ministry in February. NGO activists, however, say this figure is too low, estimating that there are at least 1,500 cases of people with HIV/AIDS countrywide.
Following the appearance of the first case, the Ministry of Health launched the National Programme for Combating HIV/AIDS, headed by a committee that included representatives from the government and civil society. A government blood-testing centre was later established in Damascus in the early 1990s, with centres subsequently opening in other governorates.
More recently, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent along with several civil organisations has assisted in the opening of other semi-government centres in Hama in central Syria and Lattakia on the coast.