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Though HIV has been rapidly sweeping the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since 2001, making it one of the two fastest growing epidemics in the region, recent estimates show that there is still “window of opportunity” for action against the epidemic.
Only two percent of the total estimated number of people living with HIV reside in the MENA, but the prevalence of the epidemic has pushed these countries to mobilize their efforts to confront the escalated situation.
According to a report from UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the number people living with HIV increased from 320,000 in 2001 to 470,000 in 2010. If Pakistan and Afghanistan are included, the increase was from 330,000 to 580,000.
The First Regional Report on AIDS under the auspices of the League of Arab States was launched on Monday at Cairo's Fairmont Heliopolis Hotel. Delegates and ambassadors from Arab states, members of civil society associations, target groups, the media and UN agencies, and good will ambassadors attended.
“Ten years ago, HIV was not on the political agenda in the Middle East and North Africa. Today, all countries in the region have become more engaged in the HIV response,” said UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director Paul De Lay during the launch.
A presentation was given showing the latest studies on HIV dynamics and major achievements made over the last decade in the area of prevention, treatment, care and support. The report also sheds light on the main challenges and recommendations that should be followed in order to defuse the looming crisis.
People who inject drugs, men who have sex with men, and sex workers represent the majority of infected people in the MENA region. This is one reason why people are particularly reluctant to be tested or declare their HIV status in Eastern societies, where they are often regarded as sinners that deserve to be punished or marginalized.
Sima Bahous, assistant secretary general and head of the social development sector at the League of Arab States (LAS), said that fear of stigma and discrimination are among the main reasons behind the prevalence of HIV. “Patients refuse to go to get treatment in fear of losing their jobs or being an outcast due to the misconception of transmission methods such as day-to-day activities."
She added that this caused a shortage of data on HIV in countries across the region and difficulties in gaining an accurate picture of the situation that could help protect people from infection.
According to the report, the overall percentage of people tested in the region remains much lower than the global percentage, and most of the testing is focused on migrant workers rather than the key populations who are at higher risk of HIV.
Besides the high level of stigma and discrimination, according to Nicole Massoud, Regional Programme Monitoring and Evaluation Adviser, the major obstacle hindering an effective response is a lack of political leadership.
Hind Khatib, the UNAIDS regional director, explained the challenges facing the region's progress: the limited engagement and capacities of civil society organizations working with key populations, and the fact that existing structures are not sufficiently tailored to their needs.
“Work with key populations can be demanding in any setting, yet it is significantly more difficult in settings where levels of stigma and discrimination are high and the overall support from governments is limited,” said Hind.
During the question-and-answer session afterwards, Bahous pointed out the efforts of League of Arab States to slow down the prevalence of HIV. “The report itself is the first step on the road of raising people’s awareness about the epidemic,” she said, adding that the league organizes workshops to expand HIV testing and counseling, as well as introducing policies addressing the region’s problems.
The media plays an indispensible role in the HIV response as it can address a wide segment of society that governments fail to reach in an effective way, says Hussein Gezairy, the World Health Oorganization's regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Renowned Egyptian actor Amr Waked, the UNAIDS regional goodwill ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that he believes that the region will undoubtedly face difficulties in the beginning, but “nothing is out of reach.”
“The revolutions have proved how people believe in change and are willing to struggle to make their countries better,” he said.