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Iran: Health Workers Hail Bid to Counter HIV Spread

By Maryam Jalali, Tehran (source: Mianeh)


Tehran's House of the Sun is a safe haven for women addicted to drugs.


At the centre, in the Darvazeh Ghar neighbourhood, one of the southernmost and poorest areas in Iran's capital, female addicts, as well as homeless women and prostitutes, can access methadone, have a free hot meal and speak to counsellors.


The House of the Sun has recently installed five vending machines, offering needles for intravenous drug users as part of a government policy to curb the rising rate of HIV infection in the country.


The government first began distributing free syringes in Tehran in 2001 to fight the virus and other diseases.


Official research suggests the spread of HIV through the use of contaminated needles has been reduced by up to18 per cent since then.


Yet there is still work to be done.


Figures from the World Health Organisation, WHO, say there are around 85,000 people living with the virus in the country - more than double the number recorded in 2000.


Masoud Mardani, of the National Committee on AIDS, said the real figure of HIV infection in the country could be four or five times higher than the WHO figures suggest.


Despite the fact that contaminated needles are main agents of infection, many Iranians believe the virus spreads through extra-marital relations, which is illegal under the country's Islamic laws.


Those who contract HIV therefore tend to keep it secret, which makes it hard to find accurate figures on the prevalence of the disease.


The country's authorities are taking steps to slow the spread of HIV through the National Committee on AIDS, the ministry of health and groups such as the Organisation for Fighting Drugs, OFD, and the Social Welfare Organsation, SWO.


The government has spent 20 million US dollars on control and prevention, said Saeed Sefatian, general treatment manager with the OFD.


In addition to the provision of clean syringes, work is being done to tackle widespread ignorance of the illnesses.


World AIDS Day, which is held every December 1, is a high-profile event in Iran, during which attempts are made to raise public awareness of the disease - including information on ways in which HIV is contracted.


Yet those fighting the spread of HIV continue to face obstacles.


In January 2008, when the chairman of the OFD announced new measures to make cheap syringes available to drug addicts through vending machines, there was a backlash from some officials.


They opposed the plans for the machines - which would also sell low-cost condoms and plasters - saying that this could encourage immoral behaviour.


The furore caused plans for the vending machines to be delayed and watered down.


But in January 2009, Dr Mohammad Reza Jahani, OFD deputy director, announced that machines would be introduced in SWO branches in poor areas of Tehran, where the concentration of drug addicts is highest.


Health workers and patients have welcomed the new machines.


Zahra Biniaz, a rehabilitation counsellor, said that had this programme started in prisons and treatment centres ten years ago, the number of people with AIDS would be a fraction of what it is today.


Sahar, an AIDS sufferer who attends a SWO branch, said she believed that the availability of clean needles through vending machines would help prevent the spread of HIV.


She said it was likely that she contracted the HIV virus from her husband, a drug addict, after he used a contaminated needle.


Dr Hamid Sefatian of OFD has since announced the installation of more vending machines in other areas of Tehran, where there is a high risk of infection through dirty needles.


Maryam Jalali is a journalist in Tehran


This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.


About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

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