Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- The number of people infected with the HIV virus in the Arab world has reached a critical stage, with 76,000 new cases in 2005 alone, or a growth of 300%, placing the Arab world second on a list of regions with the highest rate of new infections.
According to UN reports, more than 1% of the population in Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and Mauritania are infected with HIV.
Dr. Mustafa bin al Malih, resident UN coordinator in Saudi Arabia, said Arab countries were under threat if they do not implement effective steps to combat the spread of HIV. He also warned against the rising number of HIV-infected individuals, which could reach 16 million by 2015, or 4.1% of the region’s total population.
The above facts were presented at the 4 th regional conference for combating Aids in the Arab world held in Riyadh earlier this week, in order to review achievements so far and set new goals for the future. Meetings in Yemen, Sudan and Kuwait preceded it.
Dr. Khadija Maala, regional program coordinator, told Asharq al Awsat that the UN program to combat AIDS in the Arab world was present in 20 countries.
According to participants at the conference, 80% of new infections are the result of sexual intercourse, followed by drug addiction and blood transfusion. In Libya, for example, 90% of new infections were amongst drug users.
Dr. Maala revealed that a few Arab countries, such as Gulf countries, provide their citizens with free medication, with only 5% of all HIV-infected individuals in the Arab world receiving adequate medication, as it is very expensive and can cost up to $600 dollars per month.
For his part, the senior technical advisor for the program, Ihab al Kharat, said a World Bank study of 9 Arab countries revealed that, if government policies on HIV are not modified, they will lose 30% of the Gross National Productivity, especially as the virus is spreading amongst the 15 to 49 age group.
“There are not accurate statistics on the exact number of HIV-infected individuals in the Arab world. Estimates vary between 250 thousand and 1.5 million people. The number of individuals who come forward to be examined by health professionals is small. Medical services are also not always readily available”, he said.
As for the spread of the AIDS virus in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Riyad Abdulaziz al Khalif, an epidemiology consultant and head of the national program to combat AIDS in the Kingdom, said, “Studies conducted by the program reveal that, from 1984 until December 2004, 10210 were reported. 80% of these HIV-infected individuals are non- Saudi residents and 2316 cases are Saudi nationals.”
Dr. al Khalif stressed that the strategy to combat the spread of the virus in Saudi Arabia focused on raising awareness of basic hygiene, especially amongst at-risk groups such as sex-workers, drug addicts, prisoners, beggars and the homeless, and health awareness in all sections of Saudi society. With the assistance of the World Health Organization, Saudi Arabia plans to launch a program in 2007, which will see health centers opened in high-risk locations, including prisons, Dr. al Khalif added.
Speaking to the press on Tuesday, Dr. al Khalif revealed that Saudi Arabia intends to launch a new system for medical consultations and voluntary check-ups, in order to enable individuals to complete the consultations in person or on the phone, anonymously.
He also revealed that a meeting with the ministries of interior, social affairs, health and justice will be held, in order to coordinate efforts to combat the spread of the virus in Saudi Arabia. He also said that the Kingdom and other Gulf countries exchanged the names of foreign HIV positive individuals in order to forbid them from returning to work in the region.