Social Stigmas in Arab Countries Interfere with HIV/AIDS Education, Reporting
In Arab countries, the stigma of HIV/AIDS breeds "silence" and "ignorance" about the disease, AP/MSNBC.com reports. Much of the problem is rooted in Arab countries' reluctance to educate people about safe sex, as "strict interpretations of Islamic prohibitions against premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality, coupled with stern conservative traditions means that publicly discussing sex ... is taboo." Egyptians continue to think of AIDS as a "foreign disease" and "refuse to admit that homosexuality or prostitution exists in Egypt." On the other hand, some "argue" that Islamic "strictures" on sex will "protect Arab countries from an AIDS epidemic." According to Nasr el-Sayed, director of Egypt's National AIDS Control Program, even some doctors "don't believe AIDS can strike in Egypt." But experts say that the disease has already reached Arab countries in numbers "far greater than reported," as the stigma associated with the disease interferes with reporting. For example, the United Nations estimated that there were about 8,100 HIV cases in Egypt at the end of 1999, 10 times as many HIV cases as governmental officials recorded. Even Egyptian officials "admit" that their records reflect an HIV-positive population "well below the real number." Like Egypt, Yemen's Health Ministry says that the actual number of HIV cases in the country is "much higher" than the 1,200 officially recorded cases, and Saudi Arabia does not even maintain an official estimate of HIV infections.
Arab countries have been forced to navigate their HIV/AIDS education campaigns around these societal sexual taboos. For example, Jordan has distributed ads and leaflets about HIV/AIDS, but the materials "stop short of discussing safe sex." Egypt's National AIDS Control Program launched an AIDS hotline in 1996, advertising it through leaflets and posters on buses and in subway stations. But the organization decided against creating a "homosexual support group for fear of being accused of encouraging homosexuality," making it difficult to reach high-risk groups, Sana' Nassif, who heads an AIDS program for the international group CARITAS, said. Nassif also noted the difficulties Arab women face in protecting themselves from HIV, since the societies are traditionally male-dominated. Jihane Tawilah, WHO's regional adviser on STDs, added, "Its really tragic how women are unable to negotiate their own protection in wedlock or outside it" (AP/MSNBC.com, 5/7).