by Tahani al-sabri
The world has seen a host of deadly viruses over the years. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) killed 800 people and injured 8400 worldwide since its spread in November 2002. The Ebola virus, which spreads rapidly through exchange of bodily fluids and causes internal bleeding and shock, boasts a terrifying 70 to 90% mortality rate among diabetes carriers. The H5N1 Avian influenza virus has already killed 19 people in a number of Asian countries.
If we compare the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the culprit behind the infamous Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), to those viruses mentioned above, we discover a virus much less dangerous in important ways. Generally, HIV victims have much longer to live than carriers of the viruses above, and symptoms onset at a much slower rate.
Recently, Yemen’s Minister of Health announced there were 3500 cases of HIV in Yemen in 2012, while Fouzia Abdullah Gharamah, UNAIDS country officer, estimated the number of Yemenis living with HIV to be 35,000. This discrepancy caused considerable controversy among Yemeni citizens, accusing the media of lying and rigging the facts.
Dr.Ibrahim Ali al-Babli, head of Laboratory Department at the Center for Health Services and Social Care at Al-Gumhuri hospital, said, “Both of the authorities are correct. Under each confirmed case of HIV, ten cases go unknown. If we calculate them all, the number is correct”.
Dr Abdul Hamid Suhaibi, General Director of the Yemen National Program to Fight Aids, stated that so far 160 new cases of AIDS had been registered in 2013, a trend which is said to be worrying health officials. All 160 cases were registered in the provinces of Sana’a, Aden, Hodeidah, Taiz and Hadhramawt.
According to a statement issued by the Foundation for Health Awareness and Information Yemen AIDS, most HIV carriers in Yemen were infected through pregnancy or illicit sexual relations. In particular, many contracted HIV through prostitution or homosexual acts, both of which are severely punishable by Yemeni law.
The prevalence of HIV in Yemen is still relatively low, estimated at about 0.2 percent of the population. However, people living with HIV face stigma and discrimination almost everywhere, even in some health facilities. Abo-Mohaned, 35, recounted, “It was back in 2006, and I was working in Saudi Arabia. I went to the hospital and I found out I was HIV-positive. At first, I was shocked; I had no information about the disease and I thought that everybody would avoid me. I thought I would die in a week and I was worried for my mother and my wife, who was five months pregnant. My wife took it well. She got tested to find out whether she was infected or not. I was planning to give her the choice to stay with me or leave if she were negative, but she said that we would live or die together.” Abo-Mohaned has witnessed the consequences of HIV first-hand. “When the time came to give birth, we went to two hospitals and both refused to assist my wife,” he says. “The only solution was to take her to a third hospital and hide her HIV status.”
Dr. Abdul Fattah works at the HIV/AIDS treatment clinic at Al-Gumhuri hospital, the only place in Sana’a providing antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, where about 445 people are currently receiving care for HIV. He decided to devote himself to fighting the disease while he was studying medicine, after a friend died alone, at home, without any medical care whatsoever. “After that, I had a reason to start reading about HIV,’ he says. “And when I finished my medical studies, I heard there was this clinic, so I came and started working here.”
When he began practicing medicine, Dr. Fattah encountered the same prejudices described by Abo-Mohaned. “Fighting discrimination is a major challenge,” he says. “At first, people with HIV were being refused admission to hospital. After a lot of pressure and training of medical staff, the situation has improved a bit. Yet there are still many doctors, respected doctors, who panic at the mere mention of HIV.”
Besides the clinic, there are five centers in Sana’a where people who want to know their HIV status can receive testing, diagnosis, and pre- and post-test counseling. However, in the last few months the supply of tests to diagnose HIV has run out. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria will finance activities in Yemen until 2014, but these funds are only to ensure lifesaving HIV medicines to people who have already started treatment. “For care and treatment, we have enough financial support, but for other activities, especially awareness-raising, we need more,” explains Dr.Abdulhameed, director of the National AIDS Program in Yemen. “We lack resources for counseling and diagnosis, and particularly for the prevention of HIV transmission from mother to child, and these are services that we need to scale up.”
The No Stigma Foundation for Development also carries out advocacy projects against stigma and discrimination toward people living with HIV. These projects aim to support families of those who may have the virus ensure their continued access to health care, education, and housing. The organization also provides psychological support to ease the shock of learning one has HIV. The organization works by putting counselors on-site with new carriers of the virus and providing other activities, says Ali al-Alkami, the founder of the foundation.
From 10 April to 30 September 2013, the Social Services Association will carry out a program entitled, “Project preventive interventions for the most vulnerable categories of injury and the transfer of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases”. The program will be supported by the United Nations Program for AIDS, and will consist in part of training health centers in the conducting of voluntary counseling and testing sessions. These trainings will focus on 50 targeted institutions in particular.
Rasena Yassen Abdullah, head of the program said,” the program aims to reach 1000 homosexuals in order to raise their awareness of the virus and inform them of free services provided by the project in treating sexually transmitted diseases. The program will also share information on mental health, counseling and voluntary testing and treatment services (ART)”.
“For All” is a similar foundation designed to provide voluntary counseling and testing for those displaced from their host communities. This foundation has already assisted 2609 displaced youth in Aden and Haradh. The foundation has worked with 1542 displaced youths in Aden and 1067 in northern Haradh, said vice-head of the foundation Asmahan.