x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

New UN Aids chief seeks changes in Arab countries

The new head of UN efforts to curb the spread of Aids has said overturning laws that discriminate in the Arab world is high on his list of priorities.

NEW YORK // The new head of UN efforts to curb the spread of Aids has said overturning laws that discriminate against homosexuals and migrants in the Arab world is high on his list of priorities in tackling the killer pandemic. In his first interview since becoming executive director of UNAids in January, Dr Michel Sidibé said "repressive rules" in the Middle East are counterproductive and could serve to increase the prevalence of the disease.

Dr Sidibé, a public health expert from Mali, called for an overhaul of unfair rules in Gulf states. The new undersecretary general described the mandatory testing of migrants, together with laws that criminalise homosexuality, as human rights violations that do little to protect public health. "What I say to those countries with very repressive laws is that people will hide themselves," said the father of four. "They will go to the margins of society. They will go underground and they will continue to interact [sexually] with the population."

He describes the mandatory testing of migrants as dangerous, because recently infected individuals can produce negative results and then proceed to spread the disease under the mistaken belief that they are healthy. Social stigma and laws barring homosexuality compel some men into marriage, but they may continue to have sex with other men and risk contracting HIV/Aids and infecting their wives. Dr Sidibé wants to "make this information available to decision-makers" and ensure that bad policies in countries with "repressive laws" do not help spread the immune system disorder.

"I'm looking at working with religious forces in those countries to decide the best approach to deal with these very sensitive and delicate issues," he said. Last year's global Aids report describes "limited information" hampering understanding of the scale of the problem across the Middle East, home to an estimated 420,000 sufferers. Unprotected sex between men is known to contribute to the spread of Aids, with recent studies in Egypt showing that 6.2 per cent of men who have sex with men are infected with HIV, while rates for their counterparts around Sudan's capital are as high as nine per cent.

HIV prevalence among injecting drug users in Iran is as high as 23 per cent, with needle-sharing and related problems known to spread the disease in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Syria. Many of these drug users also work as prostitutes, the report said. "Across much of the Middle East, we are witnessing a debate arriving alongside the growth of civil society, with people asking for more protection, for more information and asking for a change of attitudes towards minority groups," Dr Sidibé said.

The Aids chief was in New York for two days of debate among the UN General Assembly's 192 members this week, in which the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, urged governments to change laws and tackle "prejudice, discrimination and stigma". Envoys from the Arab world, such as Qatar's ambassador to the UN, Nassir Abdulaziz al Nasser, said the world body was right to avoid taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach to countries with different traditions and attitudes.

"Cultural and religious differences make it necessary to adopt different plans and strategies to combat this disease," said Mr Nasser, adding that policies must be compatible with the "principles and values of the community, which stem from Islamic law". jreinl@thenational.ae