Region at critical point with action needed to stop spread of disease
CAIRO: The time to address AIDS is now is the common message leaders were trying to convey at the 2nd Regional Religious Leaders Forum in Response to HIV/AIDS in the Arab states, sponsored by the UN Development Program (UNDP).
We have a window of opportunity due to the currently low prevalence rate, says Dr. Elhadj Amadou Sy, director of UNDP HIV/AIDS group, and Bureau for Developing Policy. Despite the low rates, estimates are that 80-90 percent of those afflicted in the region do not know they are infected. Sy says it would be catastrophic if Arab nations waited until the HIV issue became truly epidemic, by which time it would be too late to control the spread. The worst affected areas were in a situation where they only had one case.
Amat Al-Soswa, assistant secretary-general and assistant administrator of UNDP and director of its regional bureau, used the example of Sub-Saharan Africa to emphasize this point, where in 1987 there were just 41 patients infected with HIV. Although they were warned that the numbers would rise exponentially once those affected reached 4 percent of the population, No one believed it. And we have the same situation now in Arab countries.
Sy discussed with The Daily Star Egypt the role of youth, education, and infected patients.
He emphasized the need to work with young people, to teach them how to protect themselves. He also suggested that those infected “can be part of the solution, not the problem.
Many speakers at the conference spoke of education but few elaborated on the specifics of this controversial topic. Dr. Ehab El-Kharrat confirmed that [sexual education] has come up among religious leaders; some are for and some are against. But still, he says, It is very much on the table.
Sexual education is extremely important but should be put in a broader context, said Sy, who believes comprehensive self-education should be taught, encompassing sexuality along with respect, self-esteem and other forms of self-development.
He also does not think school is the only venue for education. It s a combination of all elements, involving school, home, media, and various popular cultural leaders.
While Sy thinks Morocco and Tunisia have been particularly good at addressing the HIV issue, he thinks almost all Arab countries should be seriously concerned with the spread of the virus in their nations, exhibiting many of the high risk factors. Sy particularly emphasized the dependence on migrant labor in oil fields and other areas, making such countries extremely vulnerable.
He feels the greatest challenges in the Arab context are stigma and discrimination toward AIDS patients. Arabs see HIV/AIDS as a problem of others, and not of our own.
Dr. Khadija Moalla, regional program coordinator, UNDP HIV/AIDS Regional Program for the Arab States, told The Daily Star Egypt that they are addressing religious leaders in order to prevent and address such stigma and discrimination. We didn t want to make the same mistake [as in the past]. Dr. Sayed El-Zenari said in the opening that there is a belief that those infected with AIDS are impious and told the story of one man who would not even go to his father s funeral because he had died of AIDS. Religious leaders can help in this aspect.
Moalla also explained the forum s emphasis on female involvement, It s important because women are close to other women . they are 50 percent of those infected. She added that four-fifths of women were infected, unknowingly, through their husbands.
While religious leaders at the opening, such as Sheikh Tantaway, Reverend Ted Karpf, and Bishop Bolous, representing Pope Shenouda, emphasized mercy and care as a religious duty, Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa stressed the disastrous effects the disease could have on the economy and security. Al-Soswa spoke of the causes of AIDS, such as extreme poverty and the exploitation of women, and spoke practically of the need to de-stigmatize the virus in order to encourage those afflicted to come forward and help control its spread.
Over 300 leaders representing 20 Arab states are participating in the three-day conference. Regional notables gathered to indicate their collective support in the fight against AIDS.