UN Warns of HIV Epidemic in Arab World

Nov. 27, 2012 – The U.N. Aids agency is warning of an HIV epidemic in the Arab World, one of only two regions globally where there’s an increase in the number of new infections.

The latest report from UNAIDS shows a 35 percent increase in new infections from 2001 to 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa compared with a 20 percent decline globally over the same period.

The number of people living with HIV in the Arab World is estimated at about 500,000, with an increasing number of children newly infected, again bucking the global trend.

The situation in Arab countries is compounded by social stigma, discriminatory laws, and a lack of funding for HIV treatment and prevention.

Some 56 percent of pregnant women living with HIV globally received antiretroviral treatment in 2011 to prevent mother-to-child transmission but that figure is less than 10 percent for the Middle East and North Africa region.

Similarly, 54 percent of all people living with HIV and eligible for antiretroviral therapy globally received treatment but that figure drops to 15 percent in Arab countries.

The consequences are borne out in the mortality rates for the Arab world – a 17 percent increase in the number of people dying from Aids-related illnesses from 2005 to 2011. The only other region to witness an increase in mortality in the same period is Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which is also the only other region to experience an increase in new infections from 2001-2011.

Among the groups most heavily affected are men who have sex with men and their situation is made worse by laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activity imposed by states in the region – in some instances punishable by death. (Jordan and Iraq are the only countries, and the West Bank is the only territory, where same-sex sexual activity is legal.)

“The persistence of stigma, discrimination and punitive laws underscores the need for greatly expanded action to ground AIDS responses in human rights,” the UNAIDS report states. “Countries should take steps to better understand and address the factors that contribute to vulnerability to HIV and impede service access; take steps to measure and reduce stigma and discrimination; initiate legal reform as well as pragmatic steps to enforce protective laws.”

– Denis Fitzgerald