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02/26/08

EGYPT: Taking aim at ignorance about HIV/AIDS


Photo: G Pirozzi/UNAIDS
A women's group meets in Upper Egypt to discuss HIV/AIDS. According to the National AIDS Programme, many Egyptians lack knowledge of HIV/AIDS and how it is transmitted
CAIRO, 22 February 2008 (PlusNews) - Eight Egyptian men who were arrested and forced to undergo HIV tests, and the subsequent torture of the two who tested HIV-positive, has unleashed a storm of controversy in a country where people still know very little about the virus.

"You can find people who know what you are talking about when you talk about AIDS, but I could say that most people who live here don't know the difference between a person with HIV and a person with AIDS," said UNAIDS Country Officer Wessam El-Beih. "They will say that this is not something that exists in Egypt."

In late 2007, eight men in the capital, Cairo, were charged with debauchery after allegedly accepting money for sex. They were subjected to mandatory HIV tests, and the two who had tested positive were taken to a Cairo hospital for treatment and initially chained to their beds, according to the rights lobby group, Human Rights Watch.

"The hospital is not a prison, it is an open place and they could escape, so at first they actually were chained down so that they would not get away," said Zein El-Taher, director of the National AIDS Programme (NAP). "We asked that they be uncuffed, and they were. We even said we would be held accountable [should they escape] ... I did this so no one would say that they [the authorities] discriminate against people with HIV in Egypt."

UNAIDS estimates that about 13,000 people were living with the virus in 2005 - an HIV prevalence rate of less than 0.1 percent in a population of 80 million - so most Egyptians believe HIV/AIDS does not affect their lives, El-Beih told IRIN/PlusNews.

Even doctors don't know

While many Egyptians are indifferent, even more lack knowledge about HIV/AIDS. Although educational HIV/AIDS programmes are part of the curriculum for junior high school students, NAP's Zein El-Taher admitted that these courses were inadequate.

Medical schools fared even worse. A survey by the International Federation of Medical Students Association revealed shocking levels of ignorance about HIV among the country's medical students. Iman Ewais, a national Federation officer for reproductive health, including HIV, said some students thought bathing more often prevented HIV, and swimming in a pool or sharing food with someone with HIV could bring on infection.
 
"The hospital ... is an open place and they could escape, so at first they were chained down"

Medical students get only two hours of HIV training during their six years of medical school, and their ignorance reflected prevailing myths and misconceptions in Egypt, Ewais added.

"The doctor is considered to be of a very high status, and if the doctor doesn't know, the students won't know," she said, recalling that a professor of microbiology had once told her HIV might be transferred through sweat. "What will a doctor like that tell his students?"

El-Beih said medical students have misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted because not much emphasis is put on teaching HIV as a subject in medical schools. For example, some students believed HIV could be transmitted through insect bites.

The survey findings prompted the National AIDS Programme to develop a programme to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in all Egypt's medical schools. "Medical school is six years long, and HIV/AIDS training would normally come in the last two years, meaning the student goes on for four years without HIV/AIDS training or knowledge," El-Taher said. "The programme is aimed at making students learn this from the beginning."

No room for complacency

Given the low official prevalence rate, the government has so far focused solely on highly vulnerable population groups like commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men, street children and injecting drug users. But UN agencies have raised the alarm over trends revealing that the number of newly reported HIV cases in Egypt is on the rise.

El-Beih warned that Egyptians could not afford to continue stigmatising infected people, nor could they keep ignoring the virus. "There is still a low perception of related risks ... 80 percent of infected women in Egypt have been infected through monogamous relations with their husbands; more women and children are being affected by it."

The National AIDS Programme provides free antiretroviral drugs to those who need them, holds regular support group meetings for HIV-positive Egyptians and offers services to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. UNAIDS has been in Egypt for over five years, and has set up an HIV/AIDS hotline. In 2004 it opened the first of 20 voluntary counselling and testing centres.

"Before 2004, the only way people got tested was if they needed to go to the Gulf and needed a blood test, or if they were to be blood donors. It was not done on a voluntary basis," El-Beih said. "Now there are more facilities, so more people are testing for HIV."

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2008

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