NEW YORK // Changing attitudes towards marriage and sexual relationships are part of a social shift that is putting greater numbers of young people across the Arab world at risk of contracting HIV and Aids, according to UN analysts. UN experts have urged regional health chiefs to provide more services that protect the growing number of young people from the dangers associated with modern lifestyles, including high-risk behaviour involving sex and drugs.
The latest figures reveal that 89,000 of the 310,000 people infected with HIV/Aids across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) are aged between 15 and 24, a growing demographic that constitutes one-fifth of the region's population. Samir Anouti, an adviser for the UN's agency for children, Unicef, said young people experience ever-greater difficulties when finding work and getting married and increasingly engage in premarital sex and other behaviour that increases the chance of contracting HIV/Aids.
"Young people are facing enormous challenges which make them vulnerable to contracting HIV/Aids," he said. "They experience high rates of unemployment - Mena has documented the largest youth unemployment of all regions across the world - delayed marital age, increased premarital sex, increased mobility both outside of the region and within the region, often for economic migration to Gulf countries, peer pressure to engage in high-risk behaviour and changing lifestyle norms."
Some have argued that conservative attitudes in Muslim-majority nations created a "cultural immunity" from the spread of Aids, but the UN warns this truth no longer holds as social changes impact the way young people behave. Although data show relatively low rates of HIV/Aids across Mena and suggest that epidemics on a scale comparable to those in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa are unlikely, Unicef urges the region's health chiefs to take dramatic, taboo-busting steps.
Mr Anouti said this week's report, Children and Aids: The Fourth Stocktaking Report, 2009, demonstrated that "teaching abstinence is not enough" and governments must provide more services and not rely so heavily on education. Such approaches have proven controversial in other parts of the world, including providing contraceptives to unmarried teenagers, free health checks for sex workers and giving clean syringes to injecting drug users.
Jimmy Kolker, head of the HIV/Aids section at Unicef, said such policies would likely be provocative because the young people most likely to catch the virus are engaged in high-risk behaviour such as prostitution, homosexuality and drug use. "In many cases, these marginalised groups are not easily reached by even youth-friendly health services," he said. "The goal is that we find those people whose behaviour does put them at risk and ensure that prevention measures are applicable to the epidemic in the region."
The 52-page report was released to coincide with World Aids Day, which is marked annually on December 1, and closely followed last week's Aids Epidemic Update, which revealed that an estimated 35,000 people became infected across the region last year. It said the number of people living with HIV in the region rose from 200,000 in 2001 to 310,000 last year, but warned that the stigmatisation of drug users, sex workers and homosexuals could be concealing the full scale of the epidemic.