NEW YORK // The number of people being infected with HIV in the Middle East and North Africa more than doubled in less than a decade, growing from 36,000 new cases in 2001 to 75,000 last year, the UN reported, compared to notable drops in other parts of the world.
The region has one of the world's lowest infection rates of HIV, according to UNAids, the UN's HIV infection-fighting agency, with only 0.2 per cent of the total population infected compared to a global average of 0.8 per cent.
Yet despite the lower incidence, the annual report by UNAids reveals that only two regions, the Middle East and North Africa region and the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region, are witnessing a growing number of new infections every year.
The increase comes as anti-HIV efforts in sub-Saharan Africa and other hard-hit regions have led to a global decline in the disease, with the number of new infections falling from 3.1 million in 1999 to 2.6 million last year.
Researchers warn data from the Middle East and North Africa are scarce and unreliable - meaning the statistics are only rough estimates and the true scale of the epidemic could be worse than is presently understood.
Analysts attribute the region's low HIV prevalence to social and religious mores that limit the number of people engaging in high-risk behaviour, including prostitution, intravenous drug use and men having same-sex relations.
But Tim Martineau, a programme director for the Geneva-based UNAids agency, said social stigma and discriminatory laws drive these groups underground - putting them beyond the reach of clinicians and data-collectors.
He said HIV infections have hitherto been concentrated in these high-risk groups, said the disease has started spreading from these contained populations.
The UAE is one of 22 countries that deport individuals once their HIV-positive status is discovered, along with many Middle East and North Africa (Mena) countries, North Korea, China and Russia. UNAids argues that forced deportation constitutes a human rights violation; Emirati officials have said the policy is under review.
The prevalence of HIV among pregnant women using healthcare services in Djibouti and southern Sudan now exceeds one per cent - more than five times the regional average, said the UNAids 2010 Report on the Global Aids Epidemic.
The 360-page report describes several countries with worryingly high concentrations of the disease. In Iran, the HIV epidemic is concentrated among intravenous drug users, where 14 per cent of this group lived with HIV in 2007.
In 2006, the proportion of female sex workers living with HIV was about one per cent in Egypt and between two and four per cent in Algeria, Morocco and Yemen. In Egypt, an estimated six per cent of men engaging in same-sex relations are living with HIV, compared to more than eight per cent in Sudan.
An estimated 460,000 people lived with HIV in Mena at the end of 2009, up from 180,000 in 2001. Aids-related deaths rose from 8,300 to 23,000 in the same period. About 12,000 sufferers received antiretroviral therapy last year of an estimated 100,000 who needed it.