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.
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
"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
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
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
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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