By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
The Iranian government body that sets the country's official cultural policy has reportedly removed World AIDS Day from the state calendar. The move has prompted concern among those fighting the spread of AIDS in the Islamic republic, where the disease is highly stigmatized.
Anti-AIDS and Drug Addiction Theater Festival in Tehran (August 2009)
Activists are concerned that the calendar change will mean even less public attention paid to an issue that is already a social taboo in Iran.
The reputable Iranian "Etemad" daily reported on March 14 that new regulations approved by the Supreme Council of the Revolution permit only occasions "of importance to different layers of the nation" and that strengthen "Iranian national identity" to be included in the official state calendar. Occasions that do not meet those standards are relegated to the calendar's appendix.
The ruling was reportedly approved at a meeting of the council in August 2009 and signed by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is also the council's chair.
The change, however, appears to have gone unnoticed until "Etemad" broke the news this week. The newspaper claims that the decision was made without the knowledge of or consultation with the Health Ministry.
Hamid Hosseini, the ministry's public relations manager, was quoted as saying officials from his office would ask the Council of the Revolution for an explanation.
"The reason for the elimination is not clear to us," Hosseini said. "If the need for AIDS prevention is not well understood by the council's members, then we need to remind them about it so that the occasion is again included in the calendar."
Not Important In Iran?
In 1988 the United Nations General Assembly declared AIDS to be a global pandemic and established December 1 as a worldwide day of awareness of the disease.
According to official figures released by the Health Ministry, some 23,000 Iranians are infected with HIV/AIDS.
A poster for raising awareness about AIDS
Reza Yaghoubi, a deputy at the Council of Public Culture, another body involved in decision-making about the state calendar, told "Etemad" that that the number of HIV/AIDS cases in the country was likely deemed not significant enough for World AIDS Day to be considered generally relevant.
Independent experts believe the real number of infected persons is much higher.
Arash Alaei, a pioneering Iranian HIV/AIDS doctor, tells RFE/RL the official figure represents only the number of the registered cases of HIV/AIDS. He says the real number of Iranians who are infected is likely about 100,000.
The majority of those infected are said to be drug addicts, and official figures say 70 percent of HIV-positive people contracted the virus through exchanging needles. In recent years, though, the spread of HIV through sexual intercourse has reportedly increased.
Alaei says the removal of the World AIDS Day from the calendar amounts to disregard for human rights. "World AIDS day is included in the national calendars of most countries not because of the number of infected people, but because of the importance of the rights of the people in that country," he adds.
'Not Enough Being Done'
Arash Alaei and his brother Kamiar, who is also an internationally recognized expert in HIV/AIDS prevention, were jailed in Iran in 2008 after being charged with having contacts with "hostile governments."
The two brothers, who were released last year and are now based in the United States, say they are concerned that the calendar change will mean even less public attention paid to an issue that is already a social taboo in Iran.
"This demonstrates that politicians believe AIDS is not an important issue, while 70 percent of Iranian society is younger than 35 years old and is very much at risk of AIDS infection and sexually transmitted diseases," Kamiar Alaei points out.
"No matter how much of an information campaign about this issue there is, it's not enough."
He says many Iranians might not pay attention to the events listed in the appendix of the state calendar, and that many calendars are printed without the appendix included.
AIDS activists within Iran are also said to be critical of the state's decision.
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