x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

UN gives numbers on HIV in Emirates

More than 630 nationals have Aids, UN says; doctors praise 'transparency' on the issue.

ABU DHABI // The head of the UAE's National Aids Programme praised a UN report for shedding light on HIV and Aids and supported a call to strengthen the country's fight against the disease. The UN report, for the first time, released figures on the prevalence of the disease in the Emirates and potential risk factors.

"This is a good step because transparency is very important. HIV is in the UAE and we cannot hide from it," said Dr Nada al Marzouqi, the head of the National Aids Programme and one of the authors of the report. According to the UN document, 636 UAE nationals were living with HIV last year. Only 121 chose to remain in the UAE for treatment. Only nationals are allowed to seek long-term treatment in the Emirates. The report also said that of the 49 new cases found last year, 19 were in Dubai and 17 were in Abu Dhabi.

Dr al Marzouqi said the report showed a significant shift in the way the country treats the previously "taboo" topic. "To report this, and start committing to progress, we can strengthen the [Aids] programme," she said. "There are lots of things that could be done better and we have acknowledged this." UAE law requires every expatriate moving to the country to take an HIV test. If the test is positive, they will be deported. The test is also mandatory when applying for a marriage license or starting a new job.

The number of cases has remained steady in recent years, but the UN report urged all policymakers to address the challenges of fighting the disease. Of particular concern, it said, was the "chronic understaffing" of the National Aids Programme, which had no full-time staff or physical location. "The human capacity is not at the optimum but it will be," Dr al Marzouqi said. "We understand that we could do more work with more trained staff. It is a national programme and needs all the authorities to work together."

The Ministry of Health also needs to quickly create a "single, national multi-sectoral" strategic plan to respond to HIV, the report said. It also addressed the stigma and lack of understanding about transmission and treatment of the disease. "The stigma is very important," said Dr Abdulla Ustadi, the chief consultant on infectious diseases at the Dubai Health Authority. "For me it is a priority. It will help everything else."

Dr Ustadi is one of the most prominent HIV consultants in the country and also contributed to the UN report. It was the first time, he said, that all the agencies involved in fighting the disease had shared the same message in an honest and open forum. "Having the information is one thing," he said. "And it being protected and not shared is another thing. This is a great step." Dr Rayhan Hashmey, the head of infectious diseases and infection control committee at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, which runs the UAE's biggest HIV treatment centre, agreed that awareness and education were top priorities.

"We have excellent multi-disciplinary teams here with the latest technologies and medicines, but the awareness is lacking." Dr Hashmey said the biggest knowledge gap was about transmission of the disease and only when this was corrected would the infection rate decline. "With better coordination and a central database, things should improve," he said. The 28-page UN report said prostitution and extra-marital sex were two of the key risk factors that warranted further study, despite Islamic proscriptions against both.

Prostitution, it said, was "hidden in the society" and therefore the prevalence of HIV among the country's sex workers was never assessed. "The main risk factors among UAE nationals is reported to be extramarital heterosexual relations and intravenous drug use for men, and infection from the spouse for women," it stated. It also acknowledged that these would be tough areas for policy makers to target because of the "societal, cultural, and religious values".

The report will be presented at the UN General Assembly in June. "Slowly things are changing," Dr al Marzouqi said. "This reflects the general strategy of the Government to have more transparency. It will only improve things." munderwood@thenational.ae