x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

HIV deportation makes 'little sense'

Experts say money would be better spent on community awareness, but admit intense screening plays big role in stopping spread.

The country's policy of deporting HIV-positive foreigners does little to protect the community from infection, regional experts say.

Dr Gabriele Riedner, the regional adviser for HIV/Aids and sexually transmitted diseases with the World Health Organisation (Who), yesterday called the approach "obsolete", saying it would be better to spend the money on raising awareness.

"The prevalence rate of people who are forced to leave a country for this reason is nearly the same as those already in the country," Dr Riedner said.

"So applying these restrictions to those who migrate does not make sense … we know very well that HIV exists and is spreadable in the UAE."

Experts were speaking ahead of World Aids Day today.

All expatriates are tested for HIV before receiving their residency visas. The rest of the GCC, and most Arab states, have similar policies concerning the disease.

Dr Riedner said travel restrictions had been a natural defensive response when the virus was first discovered nearly 30 years ago.

But she said it was soon realised such restrictions had very little impact and many countries, including the US and China, had abolished them.

"A virus does not require a visa to enter or leave a country," said Dr Khadija Moalla, a former regional programme coordinator for the UN Development Programme on HIV/Aids in the Arab States.

"With respect to these countries, such restrictions create a false sense of security for their nationals."

The restrictions also increase the stigma of the disease, discouraging people from being tested for it and decreasing support for a change in attitude towards those who have been infected.

"It would be much better to show solidarity towards these individuals and educate the community," Dr Moalla said.

Last year the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad) completed a two-year campaign of workshops aimed at religious leaders, healthcare professionals, aid workers and government officials, to reduce the stigma associated with the disease.

"We brought experts, and in some cases we temporarily even brought people living with HIV to share their experience," said Dr Farida Al Hosani, the manager of the communicable diseases department at Haad.

"We noticed perceptions changing when they [the participants] saw and understood what a person goes through."

The infection can be managed with various medications but not cured.

Last year the ministry outlawed discrimination against citizens with Aids in employment, marriage and education.

The latest official UN data, presented in 2009, suggested fewer than one in 500 people (0.2 per cent) aged between 15 and 49 had HIV - far lower than other regional countries such as Sudan, which has a rate of 1.1 per cent.

The UN's progress report last year stated two main factors have contributed to the low number: rigorous testing and a conservative society that rejects practices that contribute to the spread of infection.

But it also warned prevalence among expatriates continues to increase, noting "reported numbers might not be accurate due to fear of stigma".

And the recent trend is hard to read as the UAE has not released figures since 2009.

"The problem is there is no data," Dr Riedner said. "This could be because of problems with the reporting system at an institutional level."

Dr Al Hosani said screening had played a significant role in preventing the spread of Aids.

"We do a tremendous amount of screening for expats, whether it's when they arrive, pre-employment, pre-marital or before they enter university," she said. "We're also trying to be more conservative with [screening in home countries]."

The GCC recently introduced a requirement for workers from south Asian countries to be screened for HIV and other infectious diseases before they applied for residency.

The UN estimates the UAE spends about US$17.6 million (Dh64.6m) a year on its anti-Aids programme.

Most of that, 82 per cent, goes on mandatory tests, with 15 per cent dedicated to anti-retroviral therapy for nationals.

However, the report notes this may be underestimated as there is no clear allocated budget for anti-Aids programmes at the ministry or local health authorities.

Dr Riedner said the amount spent on testing and re-testing was not a "smart investment".

"This money should be spent on educating the community," she said. "This is particularly important in the GCC where foreign workers are hired under difficult conditions without their families.

"It is then likely that they engage with women from other countries or even among themselves."

This, Dr Riedner said, created a ripple effect in workers' home countries when they returned to their wives.

"Sending people back without any provision of care is not right morally and is a violation of human rights," she said.

mismail@thenational.ae