Riyadh , Asharq Al-Awsat- Dr Abdallah Al-Haqil, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, has called on the Ministry of Labor and human rights organizations to protect AIDS sufferers from requests made by some private establishments and a number of government institutions to screen people for AIDS. Dr Al-Haqil argued this request is unjustified, and has deprived many applicants from employment opportunities. In an interview with Asharq Al Awsat, Dr Al-Haqil discusses the situations of AIDS sufferers and rumors of organized gangs that seek to spread the disease deliberately.
Q) Some reports have claimed that some AIDS sufferers have attempted to spread the disease intentionally. Is there any truth in such reports?
A) Hostility (amongst AIDS sufferers) existed in the past when the number of AIDS cases multiplied through blood transfusions. In the past 10 years, however, this feeling of hostility against society has decreased. Many of those suffering from AIDS have high morals and ethics although there are some who are indifferent. Hostility exists among a small number of patients and this is where psychological treatment comes in.
Q) What is your response to the reports that indicate that gangs purposely seek to spread the disease especially in light of the growing numbers of AIDS sufferers?
A) There is a security angle to the issue. I believe that these people managed to enter Saudi Arabia illegally. It is for this reason that I call on the Interior Ministry and the Health Ministry to conduct medical tests on anyone who applies for residence to check for AIDS. However, I believe that the laboratories that conduct such medical tests are not up to the required level.
Q) But do you think that these gangs exist in Saudi Arabia?
A) I have no information about that.
Q) Does the increase in AIDS sufferers not indicate that these organized attempts are real?
A) I do not think so. The whole problem depends on awareness, which is still at a low level. More than 80% of the cases are due to sexual intercourse. The spread of the disease through blood transfusions, organ transfers, and injections is almost nonexistent. It is an exaggeration to say that there is a conspiracy.
Q) Are there plans for such a conspiracy?
A) Young men may fall victim to prostitutes who do not tell the men that they are afflicted with the disease since prostitution is their source of income. Furthermore, the practice of illicit sexual intercourse is voluntary. It is not forced upon anyone. This is where the role of awareness and vigilance comes in.
Q) What are the official figures of AIDS sufferers in Saudi Arabia?
A) The latest official statistics issued by the Ministry of Health stated that there are more than 2,000 Saudi nationals and 8,000 foreign residents in Saudi Arabia that are suffering from AIDS. The 8,000 foreigners should have been deported to their respective countries after they tested positive for AIDS.
Q) There have been reports that AIDS has been transmitted to wives and children by the husbands/fathers. Do you think that young men conceal the fact that they suffer from AIDS before getting married?
A) There may be attempts to conceal the fact that they suffer from AIDS, however, more often than not, the sufferer is unaware that he is afflicted with AIDS. The husband discovers that his wife and children are suffering from the disease after some time. It is rare that a man who knows that he is suffering from AIDS does not use protective contraception.
Q) What about the cases in which the disease is transmitted to the wife? Does this not demonstrate the indifference and negligence of the husband?
A) Yes, some AIDS sufferers have had unprotected sex with their wives knowing that they suffer from the disease. This is not a deliberate attempt on his part to transmit the disease but it is more about ignorance and indifference. There is also a lack of awareness amongst wives who insist on not using any contraception so that they may become pregnant.
Q) Do you not agree that young men embarking on marriage hide the fact that they are AIDS sufferers?
A) Such cases are few in number. I remember once asking two AIDS patients to bring their fiancées to familiarize them with the disease and to advise them on how to protect themselves from it. However, they refused to bring the two girls claiming that their fiancées already knew that they suffer from AIDS.
Q) What is the rate of increase of AIDS sufferers in Saudi Arabia?
A) It is difficult to present a chart showing the rise of this disease in Saudi Arabia for two reasons. The first reason is that the Ministry of Health securely controls the issue. The second reason is the unreliable statistics that are released. Any one following the figures will see that there is a remarkable jump between 2000 and 2001 and the year that followed. The figures multiplied dramatically. Perhaps this is due to a concealment of the actual figures in the past. However, there is still an unacceptable rise in the figures that are released every year. Despite this increase, education and awareness are not up to the required level.
Q) How will you lower the rise in cases of AIDS?
A) Many countries, including Kenya and Thailand, have succeeded in lowering the annual increase of AIDS cases by 40% through health education, raising awareness, and openness in the media. Unfortunately, we see that some groups are against campaigns that encourage the use of contraception for religious, social, and political reasons. I urge the encouragement of using protective methods during any illicit and extramarital relations.
Q) Why do some religious circles attack such appeals?
A) There is the impression that such appeals accept and encourage illicit relations. Of course, this is not true. However, we have to deal with reality and not ignore the facts so that the problem does not exacerbate the situation. Many patients who come to us have blamed us doctors for not educating them about the disease.
Q) What are the measures taken when AIDS is detected in a Saudi national or a foreign resident?
A) Some young men and women have the wrong impression and this has had negative consequences. They refuse to be tested in fear of being quarantined, ostracized, or dismissed from their jobs. This is incorrect. Usually foreign residents are deported. In the case of Saudi nationals suffering from this disease, medical tests are conducted on all members of the family. We encourage them to continue with their normal life and to remain in employment with the exception of a very limited number of jobs that require change but not quarantine or isolation. The disease can only be transmitted in a limited number of ways.
Q) There have been reports that one patient suffering from AIDS has been cured. Is this true?
A) Medical treatment has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. However, AIDS is a viral disease and there is no cure for most viral diseases. The reports that come out every now and then about the discovery of a cure for this disease are simply nonsense made up by people who want to trade in human lives.
Q) There are rumors that the United States has discovered special medication to treat AIDS but that it has declined to publicize this.
A) These are unfounded rumors. The United States spends the most [money] on AIDS and has approximately 400,000 cases of AIDS. In medicine, it is rare for a specific medication to be manufactured and to be used by a specific group since this violates the ethics of the medical profession. There is absolutely no concealment of any medication to treat AIDS.
Q) Some cases of AIDS have been transmitted through blood transfusions. What are the modern ways and measures that have been taken to prevent this from reoccurring? A) Very strict measures are followed. The screening of blood donors and organ transplants is compulsory in all the hospitals. The rate of the spread of AIDS through blood transfusions and organ transplants is very low; it does not exceed 4%.
Q) Are there any laws and regulations relating specifically to AIDS patients?
A) I have no information about this. There is strong debate on conducting blood tests prior to marriage, which is regrettable. We have asked the Ministry of Labor and the Human Rights organizations to intervene in order to protect the rights of AIDS patients from the request that private establishments and several government institutions have made to be able to detect AIDS sufferers. Such requests are unjustified since they may deprive jobseekers of employment.
Q) What are the jobs that you believe are unsuitable for those suffering from AIDS?
A) There are international regulations and these are limited only to some jobs in the medical and health sectors, such as surgery and intensive care. I would like to emphasize that AIDS patients do not pose a threat to other patients in hospitals.
Q) Do you support the idea of an AIDS test being conducted as part of the application for the identity card?
A) At present, there is no strong reason for this since the figures are very low. Nevertheless, it would be better if the Ministry of Health were to conduct comprehensive tests on individuals in offices, schools, and universities without saying why such tests are necessary.