HIV – AIDS on the Rise in the Middle East
According to recent estimates by UNAIDS, there are roughly 270,000 people living with HIV in the Middle East. While that figure is low compared to other parts of the word, it represents an increase in new infections of nearly 52 percent - the highest increase among world regions. Because HIV/AIDS is on the rise in the Middle East, it’s important to stay proactive and take steps to avoid infection.
While the number of new HIV infections are increasing in the Middle East, so are the number of AIDS-related deaths. The number of people who have died as a result of the disease has more than doubled in recent years, compared to a decrease of 16 percent in the rest of the world. The increase in deaths are attributed to a lower than average acceptance and usage of drugs specifically designed to combat the disease.
Risk of mortality is particularly high for children, many of which become infected in utero. Less than 10 percent of pregnant women that are known to have HIV receive treatment during their pregnancy, leading to a higher than average infection rate for newborns and a higher than average mortality rate amongst children.
Spread of HIV
The first case of AIDS in the Middle East was reported in the mid 1980s. It is believed that most people that had contracted the disease in the beginning had contracted it from abroad or through HIV infected blood products and organ transplants.
With very few exceptions, the majority of new HIV infections are concentrated in groups that exhibit high risk behaviors, such as homosexuals, prostitutes and intravenous drug users. In South Sudan, portions of Somalia and Dijbouti, HIV is spreading at an equal rate through the general population and high risk groups.
According to researchers, HIV infections are spreading due to a lack of access to prevention and treatment services. Those that engage in high-risk activities can pass the disease on to their spouses without knowing. For example, in Morocco, nearly 89 percent of new HIV infections in men were acquired through high-risk activities. However, 75 percent of new HIV infections in women were acquired through normal marital contact with their spouse. That means married men in the region are engaging in high-risk activities and then bringing HIV home to their spouse. Unfortunately, as the number of married women exposed to HIV in the region grows, so does the rate of mother-to-child transmission of the disease.
Regional Culture and HIV
The Middle East has had a relatively low prevalence of HIV to date partly because of the area’s religious and cultural norms. The area is highly conservative and discourages premarital sex and adultery. There is also a high rate of male circumcision, which has been shown to help reduce transmission rates.
However, it is important to note that not all cultural practices have been helpful in preventing the spread of HIV. Some small numbers of people engage in the practice of child marriage and polygamy while prohibiting the use of condoms. In many areas, HIV education has linked the disease to immorality, making heterosexual men feel immune.
Because religious doctrine bans activities such as having sex with prostitutes or homosexual behaviors, many that engage in those high-risk activities are forced to hide and don’t seek testing or treatment for HIV. Those living with HIV and those that are the most at risk for the disease often feel pressured by society to reject acknowledging the disease, which only helps it spread.
To help combat HIV in the Middle East, many are calling for an end to the social stigma surrounding the disease. It is important for people living in the region to have access to testing and treatment options. Today, human rights leaders are on the front line, working to achieve zero discrimination and trying to improve political, economic and social conditions to reduce the vulnerability of the region’s population to HIV.