AIDS.. Hidden Crisis In Arab, Islamic Countries
By Mustafa Abdel-Halim, IOL Staff
CAIRO, 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 Malaysia.
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 country.
"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 hands.
"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 AIDS cases.
Lack Of Political Will
Meanwhile, renowned Egyptian writer Salama Ahmed Salama, pointed a finger at the lack of political will to face the issue extremely seriously.
"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 said.
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".
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 fatal disease.
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 disease.
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 combat AIDS.
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 outside marriage.
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. regional office.
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 alone.
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 day.