The numbers of people becoming infected with HIV in the Middle East and North Africa has more than doubled in less than a decade, the UN warns.
Middle East HIV infections double
NEW YORK // The numbers of people becoming infected with HIV in the Middle East and North Africa has more than doubled in less than a decade, growing from 36,000 new cases in 2001 to 75,000 last year, the UN warns.
The UN’s anti-HIV agency, UNAIDS, says the region has among the world’s lowest infection rates of HIV, the virus that causes Aids, with only 0.2 per cent of the total population afflicted compared to a global average of 0.8 per cent.
Yet despite this low prevalence, the annual report from UNAIDS reveals that only two regions, the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, are witnessing growth in the annual number of new infections.
This is against a backdrop of anti-HIV efforts in sub-Saharan Africa and other hard-hit regions contributing 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 also warn that data from Mena are scarce and unreliable – meaning the statistics are only rough estimates and the true scale of the epidemic across the region could be worse than is presently understood.
Analysts typically attribute the region’s low HIV prevalence to social and religious mores that limit the numbers of people engaging in high-risk behaviour, including prostitutes, injecting drug users and men who have 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, but cited new evidence indicating the disease has started spreading from these contained populations to the wider population in some areas.
The prevalence of HIV among pregnant women using healthcare services in Djibouti and southern Sudan, for example, now exceeds 1 per cent – more than five times higher than 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 injecting 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 1 per cent in Egypt and between 2-4 per cent in Algeria, Morocco and Yemen. In Egypt, an estimated 6 per cent of men engaged in same-sex relations are living with HIV, compared to more than 8 per cent in Sudan.
“It is a concern that the numbers of infections continues to grow in the Middle East and North Africa, and there has been talk about the populations in which HIV/Aids is concentrated spreading out and infecting the more general population,” said Mr Martineau. “The role of injecting drug users, men who have sex with men and sex workers in the continuing spread of the epidemic is a serious issue.”
Overall, 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. Only about 12,000 sufferers received antiretroviral therapy last year out of an estimated 100,000 who need it.