Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat – As one lands in Mehrabad Airport, Iran, the first thing that strikes you is its simplicity and practicality. Around the airport, there are pictures of the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini and of the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, in addition to Nokia and Samsung advertisements.
However, among these images is an awareness campaign advertisement for AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) with Persian writing warning youth against the disease. It is most likely intended for Iranian youth who travel abroad for studies or leisure.
Yet, there is concern for the AIDS issue in Iran; according to the official estimate 14,000 Iranians have the disease. Other non-official sources approximate the figure to be closer to 70,000; however Iran, like most Islamic societies, does not address the issue openly.
But Minoo Mohraz sees it differently; she believes that the matter must be central in public awareness in order to protect the people, which is precisely what she strives to do. For 20 years now she has been working in the field and is Iran’s top AIDS expert and the head of the Iranian AIDS Research Center for HIV/AIDS (IHRCHA) at the Imam Khomeini Hospital. It is the largest center of its kind in Iran and is moreover a consultative body in various medical associations, while Mohraz is the Iranian media’s preferred front when it comes to the subject of AIDS. The prominent doctor’s name is amongst the list of the most renowned Iranian women internationally. Her stated mission is to bring an awareness of AIDS to every Iranian household through television, newspapers and magazines.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat from her office at the Imam Khomeini Hospital, Mohraz said, “I have been studying at the Imam al Khomeini Hospital for the past 30 years. I was the first doctor in Iran to be concerned with the issue of AIDS at the time – nearly 20 years ago. Many were afraid of the word alone. I started to direct my attention to the patients and have been a member of the National Committee to Combat AIDS since the day it was established. I have been committed to the AIDS cause for over half of my career. This commitment has made me active and I cannot stop. People with AIDS are discriminated against, and moreover, the majority of Iranians lack awareness of the disease and its prevention measures and ways of transmission. I must speak to the Iranian media to explain what should be done. I must care for the patients and support them financially and socially whenever possible. When patients need to talk to someone, they talk to me. I must offer medical assistance, which is only natural but I have to also offer social, psychological and financial support. Anything related to AIDS concerns me.”
The treatment methods employed by Dr. Mohraz, aside from medication, include yoga and music, which she stated have a significant positive impact on patients. She believes that the situation in Iran is similar to that in other countries in the region in terms of the lack of proper knowledge and awareness about AIDS.
“This lack of knowledge creates a fear of the disease and of the patients afflicted by it. This is why many of those with AIDS do not tell anyone, not even those closest to them. Some of those afflicted by the disease in Iran do not tell their mothers and fathers, while others tell their parents and siblings only. However, some of the parents who know of their children’s illness still do not visit them at treatment centers and clinics. I believe this is because of the lack of knowledge and education about the disease. If the various means of media were to spread information about the illness, that it is not transmitted through regular interaction but is rather transferred through sexual intercourse or blood transfusions, it would then allow people to talk to, interact and live with people who have AIDS. The majority of AIDS sufferers can live for many years provided they take their medication. They do not need pity but understanding. They could be as active and efficient in society as they had been before the disease, but this lack of knowledge about it is a problem,” said Mohraz.
On a wall in Minoo Mohraz’s office hangs a picture in which she is standing amongst a large group of people. They are her AIDS patients who stood to be photographed without any objections, fear or worry. Mohraz proudly hangs the picture in her office.
In that same photograph, Mohraz places her hand on the shoulders of a young boy, perhaps nine years old. She said that he had contracted AIDS through his mother who in turn had been infected by her husband who was having an affair. Since, the father has died leaving behind his wife and young child living with AIDS. Mohraz revealed that when the school found out that he had AIDS he was expelled. The doctor sued the school and won the case, however the majority of the students still refuse to talk to the child.
“What’s the use?” she said, stressing the necessity of campaigning for awareness and a transformation in the way that the disease is viewed. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, Mohraz has helped set up a system to test for AIDS. Every three months the ministry announces the figures of those who test positive. The current official estimate stands at 14,000, however Mohraz pointed out that according to unofficial statistics it was closer to 70,000.
Dr. Mohraz attributes the problem in this discrepancy to when data is collected for those who might potentially be infected but are yet to be tested. Moreover, another factor is the common case of people being afraid of confirmation that they have AIDS for fear of being discriminated against.
“When people find out they are infected with AIDS, they do not come to the treatment centers for further testing, which is another reason for this significant variance between the official figures and ours. The main ways through which we find out about who has the virus is when we run tests on prisoners, or through regular medical testing in the governmental medical centers when people come in to say they have AIDS. This is how they become part of the official records, however as for the potential virus carriers, there is no easy way to find out.”
Although there is no formal law that discriminates against AIDS sufferers, this discrimination is present on a social level. This constitutes the real problem.
“There must be a law that does not allow for the discrimination against people who have AIDS. If we had this law then it could prevent a person from getting fired from work if he/she were found to be HIV positive. Three years ago during then-President Mohammed Khatami’s regime, one of his deputies had proposed a resolution that prevented those afflicted by AIDS from getting fired from their jobs, however it was not passed. Since we do not have a law for it, this discrimination still exists. When someone is fired from their job they are incapable of securing a job elsewhere because everyone will have known about it and everyone is scared to hire someone with AIDS. That is a terrible thing. In the West, when the disease spread on a large scale, legislation was adopted to prevent discrimination against those who had AIDS, however they no longer utilize these laws as they no longer need to resort to them. Awareness about AIDS has developed and people are no longer discriminated against in the workplace. Still, at the beginning there needs to be a law. In Iran we are working to establish such a law so that people with AIDS can work and get on with their lives,” she said.
According to the AIDS specialist, the majority of people with AIDS in Iran are diagnosed at an early stage before the HIV virus becomes the syndrome. As such, it is easier on them. She added, “At our clinic here we have a center that provides testing and consultation at no charge. The youth who suspect they might have the disease come for tests and consultation voluntarily. But there are others who do not come because testing is not very common or because they are scared. For example, some parents ask questions such as: ‘Will they be taken to prison?’ Or, ‘will they be isolated from society?’ I tell them, ‘No, there is no isolation. They are free to leave the hospital because the disease they have is not contagious. As a result, even those who test positive for HIV come to the clinic to register and access health care. I believe that with more education the situation will improve even further. Today we encourage youth whose lifestyles and actions could make them more susceptible to contracting AIDS to come in for tests. All the required tests and treatment for patients is free in Iran.”
Another factor to help encourage people to come in for testing is that none of the testing centers or clinics have the word ‘AIDS’ on it, rather, they are referred to as ‘consultation centers for behavioral-induced serious diseases’. Throughout Iran, there are approximately 60 clinics, there are even testing clinics in prisons.
But whilst the system is running well, Dr. Mohraz believes that the road is still a long one. “Because of the prevalent outlook and our Islamic tradition, there is a denial of the disease. Islamic countries do not like to disclose that they have inappropriate sexual behavior occurrences and they do not like to discuss it. Officials prefer to discuss blood transfusions when discussing the transmission of AIDS, for example. I used to tell them, ‘Why are you discussing a secondary means for transmission, the main cause is sexual contact. Why don’t we talk to young people about that?’ Presently, the situation is witnessing a gradual improvement. We talk to newspapers and contribute to them but the problem is that the majority of Iranians do not read newspapers but rather listen to the radio or watch television. According to one of the censuses conducted in Iran, the results from one of the sample cities showed that 80 percent of participants had heard of HIV through television. This illustrates the impact television has.”
Still, Dr. Mohraz is busying herself trying to establish a law that prevents discrimination against people with AIDS. She continues to work long hours, care for her husband and children and meet with her patients at her clinic in the afternoon. “People give me energy,” she said.