KABUL, 15 Jul 2004 (IRIN) - As the world continued debating in Bangkok how to curb HIV/AIDS infections and care for those living with the disease, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Afghanistan announced that they were supporting the Health Ministry to improve HIV/AIDS awareness in the country.
No reliable figures are available on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Afghanistan due to the absence of screening. The Ministry of Health estimates there are between 200 and 300 cases of full-blown AIDS in Afghanistan. Activists say the number of HIV-positive people is steadily rising as drug addicted refugees continue to return in large numbers from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran where prevalence rates are much higher.
According to Dr Feroz-ul-din Feroz, the deputy minister of health, the disease was first diagnosed in the country in 1988 when a group of students who had returned from abroad were tested for HIV and one case was detected. The risk of HIV/AIDS increased after the collapse of the Taliban regime nearly three years ago, as drug abuse rose in the world's largest heroin producer. Sex workers also returned to the streets of some Afghan towns and cities.
"Up to now, the HIV infection rate seems low in Afghanistan, but it is very important to work for prevention of the disease," Dr K-Chris Hirabayashi, UNICEF's Chief of Health and Nutrition, told IRIN.
He added that most people in Afghanistan still did not know what HIV was and were ignorant about how it was transmitted. This was related to the low penetration of family planning services, low levels of education and a lack of resources. UNICEF had decided to assist the Ministry of Health to establish a HIV/AIDS department in order to boost awareness of the disease before it took hold in the general population.
Hirabayashi said UNICEF had conducted extensive training of religious leaders, given their key position in information dissemination at a local level.
Other UN agencies are also working to break the taboo around discussing HIV/AIDS in this deeply conservative country. "WHO has been supporting the Ministry of Health in disseminating AIDS/HIV awareness messages among the general public," Dr Sadar Ahmad, a WHO information officer, told IRIN. He said that current HIV/AIDS prevention work in Afghanistan focused on increasing blood screening and safety in all health facilities.
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