AIDS.. Hidden Crisis In Arab, Islamic Countries
World AIDS Day
By Mustafa Abdel-Halim, IOL Staff
December 1 (IslamOnline.net) - As the number of AIDS patients
has risen to a surprising - yet alarming - levels in Arab and
Islamic countries over the last few years, many take the blame
for the shortcomings to deep-rooted reticence about discussing
the epidemic and reluctance of unscrupulous governments and
apparently conservative societies to admit it.
Coinciding with World AIDS Day, Saudi Arabia announced Monday,
December 1, that 6,787 are living with HIV infection, five times
higher than the number of the cases reported by the conservative
Islamic kingdom in early August 2002.
In Indonesia, the World's largest Muslim country has a rapidly
escalating level of infection among prostitutes, their
customers, injection drug users and prisoners.
"Indonesia has one of the fastest growing epidemics in the
world," Elizabeth Pisani, an epidemiologist with Aksi Stop AIDS,
an AIDS prevention and care group, was quoted by Agence France-Presse
(AFP) as saying.
In Malaysia, the country now has around 57,000 reported cases of
HIV/AIDS compared to 54,000 as of June this year.
But the real number of could easily be more than double the
official figure, as many fail to report their condition for fear
of stigma or discrimination in conservative mainly-Muslim
In Afghanistan, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned that
increasing intravenous drug use could see the war-ravaged
central Asian risking an AIDS epidemic.
Indian Kashmir, with a 10-million population mostly made up of
Muslims, has an estimated 20,000 HIV cases.
In the Middle East countries, the official number of people
suffering from the disease hit 750,000.
However, many analysts said the situation is much more grave,
citing unofficial accounts showing the number of those afflicted
with HIV/AIDS in on the rise at disturbing levels.
While on paper Indonesia says it doesn't have much of a problem
with HIV/AIDS, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS warned
in a report this month that the epidemic is in danger of leaping
from the high-risk groups and into the mainstream in the Asian
"The gap is wider between reported numbers and estimated ones of
those plagued by HIV/AIDS in regional countries, due to a
plethora of reasons including governments' blackout of the true
numbers," Ibrahim al-Kirdani of the World Health Organization's
Eastern Mediterranean Region office.
In Egypt, the official number of people having contracted the
disease is 1,200m, with the authorities' insistence to
underestimate the problem in the most populous Arab countries.
But the estimated number is up to some 8,000, said Zuheir Hallaj,
a Cairo-based WHO representative.
Hallaj warned that this stage is "pre-epidemic" period where the
disease could be controlled and after which it could slip out of
"What does the government care about is to hide numbers and
avert public realization of the crisis," said Magdi Said, a
former doctor at Cairo's Endemic Diseases Hospital dealing with
Lack Of Political Will
Meanwhile, renowned Egyptian writer Salama Ahmed Salama, pointed
a finger at the lack of political will to face the issue
"Many Arab and Islamic countries do rather fear the outrage of
the public if they declare the true figures," already taking the
toll of economic hardships and political stagnation, Salama
A long-time resident of Germany, Salama hoped that Muslim and
Arab countries would follow in the footsteps of West in "facing
the problem head-on".
"Many Arab and Islamic countries do rather fear the
outrage of the public if they declare the true figures,"
Also, the HIV-related stigma and discrimination most Muslim and
Arab societies feel cause untold suffering to people living with
the disease, mostly accused of catching the disease through
illegal and unreligious sexual interaction.
"This stigma is largely out of fear. And this fear arises out of
misunderstanding about the mood of transmission of the
infection, its relation to socially unacceptable behaviors and
the belief that HIV is a fatal disease" said Hussein Al- Gezairy
Regional Director of WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region office.
Gezairy said in a message on the World AIDS Day that as new
therapies have been introduced, HIV/AIDS is now regarded as
chronic disease that needs unconscious treatment, rather than a
In Malaysia, Drug addicts sharing infected needles made up
nearly 80 percent of HIV/AIDS cases while heterosexual
transmission was the second highest cause, at nearly 12 percent.
As Terrorism, WMDs
Noticeably, the rich countries are also coming under fire for
the lack of action to help fight the disease in developing
countries with the same vigor with which they have moved to
combat terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction in the AIDS-afflicted countries.
In an interview with the BBC a few days ago, U.N. Secretary
General Kofi Annan said he was "very angry, distressed and
helpless", as the world lacks political will to face the
In a rather skeptical cunning note, Annan said that the AIDS
epidemic has become the world's biggest security threats along
with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
In Afghanistan, where the U.S. forces still make presence for
fighting the remnants of the Taliban regime, a less active pace
of development is going on in the fight of the disease
"If we don't start raising public awareness of the issue, and
focus on prevention, increasing drug use is a serious factor
that could push Afghanistan towards the risk of an HIV/AIDS
epidemic s," UNICEF's Afghanistan head of health Peter Salama
said in a statement ahead of World AIDS day.
The governments also disappointed that their demands for the
right to import generic medicines to replace the branded
products from the major U.S. and European pharmaceutical
companies that they cannot afford, had fallen on deaf ears.
Little action is done, as the companies insist on keeping the
rights of the pharmaceutical companies are protected by a World
Trade Organization (WTO) "agreement on trade-related aspects of
intellectual property rights".
But hope is still there, with many saying the situation could be
much better in Arab and Muslim countries within coming years
with current efforts to raise public awareness, promote media
campaigns and abandon a political manipulation of the disease.
In Indian Kashmir, where public discussion of sex is taboo, has
startled elements of its conservative Muslim society by
launching its first billboard campaign promoting condoms to
Signs in the Muslim-majority summer capital Srinagar and other
major Kashmir cities feature a huge picture of a condom and a
graphic of a man hugging a woman.
"Know AIDS for AIDS," the billboards read in the city, where
previous anti-AIDS efforts have stressed Islam's ban on sex
Other campaigns sought the help of religious scholars to raise
awareness of the disease and promote religious deterrence to
avoid the disease.
"Talks already began with religious people to do this, they are
more than ready for helping us," said Kirdani of the U.N.
Kirdani has recently attended a conference discussing AIDS in
Saudi Arabia, something he said "an indication how the host
country begin another new positive attitude to face the crisis".
About 45 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases in the Saudi Arabia,
whose population hits 22 million including some six million
foreigners, were sexually transmitted and that about 77 percent
of those infected were male.
But Islam against all forms of extra-marital sex contacts,
considering it haram (forbidden), and has long played a
key role in turning followers away from one of its main causes.
Five people worldwide die of AIDS every minute of every day. HIV
has hit every corner of the globe, infecting more than 42
million men, women and children, 5 million of them last year
In 2002 alone, AIDS claimed 3 million people last year. That's
over 8,000 people every day. But the story does not end there:
just under 14,000 new cases of HIV infections occur every single