The first Yemeni AIDS patient was discovered in the 1980’s. He was working abroad, and was deported when they discovered he had the disease. He was discriminated against, and isolated. He was even made to fly home on a plane with no other passengers. This treatment would continue, from policemen who pointed guns at him and told him to stay away, to other Yemenis. It was only his doctor that hugged him strongly, knowing full well that AIDS can only be transmitted through bodily fluids.
HIV is transmitted primarily via unprotected sexual intercourse but also it is transmitted by contaminated blood transfusions, hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding. A lack of knowledge and awareness in Yemen has made Yemeni people believe that the only way that HIV transmitted is by sexual relationships. This is not true, and once HIV spreads, AIDS inevitably follows.
During the initial infection, a person may experience a brief period of influenza-like illness. This is typically followed by a prolonged period without symptoms. As the illness progresses, it interferes more and more with the immune system, making the person much more likely to get infections, including opportunistic infections and tumors that do not usually affect people who have working immune systems.
Dr. Abdulamalik al-Thami, Secretary General of the National Alliance for Safe Motherhood, said that Yemen is a Muslim society and whatever awareness they have and information about this illness, people will not accept easily.
“The role now is on the hands of religious people more than the media members. People believe and trust in mosque preachers, so they should be made aware every day, not only once, because repetition makes them think and believe.”
Dr. al-Thami added that there are more than 3,000 AIDS cases registered in Yemen, and he expects that there are more than 30,000 that are unregistered. This is mainly because of a shortage of HIV prevention, such as through needle exchanges, and safe sex. Even when the disease is contracted, antiretroviral treatment can slow its course and may even lead to a near-normal life expectancy. Both are less likely in Yemen due to AIDS stigma.
AIDS stigma exists around the world in a variety of ways, including ostracism, rejection, discrimination, compulsory HIV testing without prior consent or protection of confidentiality, violence against HIV-infected individuals or people who are perceived to be infected with HIV, and the quarantine of HIV-infected individuals.
Dr. al-Maqtri said that the stigma prevents many people from seeking HIV testing, returning for their results, or securing treatment, possibly turning what could be a manageable chronic illness into a death sentence, as well as perpetuating the spread of HIV.
“Health sectors have part of the responsibility, for they should not discriminate between AIDS patients and try to encourage them to continue their treatment.”