x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Yemen moves to end HIV stigma

Many carriers of the disease are ostracised, treated as criminals and have difficulty in getting treatment.

Yemen plans to outlaw discrimination against HIV/Aids patients.
Yemen plans to outlaw discrimination against HIV/Aids patients.

SANA'A // Yemen's parliament is expected to begin debating a draft law in the coming weeks that aims to protect the rights of people living with HIV/Aids and address the social stigma they face. "We feel there is a need for this law in order to protect the rights of the people living with HIV, ensuring they get proper medication and care," said Abdulbari Daghish, chairman of the Parliamentarians Organisation to Prevent HIV/Aids, which drafted the law. "It will also raise awareness [about] HIV/Aids and how to prevent it."

Mr Daghish said Yemenis suffering from the virus face widespread and multiple forms of discrimination. "We believe people living with the virus are [just like] people infected with diabetes or hepatitis - it is not a punishment from God as some claim. Their rights should be protected," he said. "Some are fired from work. Some find difficulty in even getting medication or accommodation or other services. The draft law addresses all these sorts of discrimination and outlaws them."

He said the constitutional committee at the parliament had acknowledged the significance of the draft law and handed it over to the parliamentary health committee, which will discuss it with the ministry of health and other government agencies, who may suggest changes to the law upon presenting it to the parliament for debate. He said Sudan and Djibouti had passed similar laws. Ahmed Hasan, who uses a pseudonym, was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2002, and said although the pain of finding out he had the virus was great, the ostracism he has experienced has been even worse.

"I used to work for an American company operating in Yemen, and when they discovered I had HIV/Aids, I was fired," Mr Hasan said. "I moved to a Norwegian company but when they found out I had HIV/Aids, I was dismissed again, after only two months. "I have been without work since 2002. I do not know what I have to do. I want to survive in this life, but the community is not allowing me to do so."

Mr Hasan, 42, said HIV/Aids sufferers face problems in hospitals and in their communities. "They see us as criminals," he said. "We are completely ostracised and cast away by the community. They think this is God's punishment and we deserve it. They do not know there are ways for transmission of the virus other than illegal sex." Under the draft law, which was put together with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Yemen, people with HIV/Aids are entitled to free health care at public health facilities, and free psychological and financial support.

The draft law also stipulates that a government fund should be established by the state in co-operation with the private sector to support the HIV/Aids patients and their families. The number of people infected with HIV/ Aids in Yemen increased from a single case in 1990 to 60 cases in 1996. By 2001, that number had increased to 870, and by 2006 it climbed to 1,821. According to Abdulhamid al Suhaibi, director of the government's National Aids Programme (NAP), 47 new cases were registered during the first three months of 2008, increasing the total number in Yemen to 2,370. However, World Health Organization reports suggest that for every reported case as many as 30 go unreported.

Lack of surveillance and reporting, as well as stigmatisation, has made it difficult to estimate the magnitude of HIV/Aids in the country. "People are afraid to talk about it," said Khalid Abdulmajeed, the Aids programme officer for the UNDP in Sana'a. "There is no legal protection for such patients. There is no efficient health system to provide medicine and advisory. All these [factors] make the situation frightful and HIV/Aids a silent disease."

According to the UNDP's HIV/Aids Situation Analysis study, risk factors include inadequate monitoring and screening of blood donations and transfusions, and lack of trained health workers and laboratory facilities. Other factors include rural-urban migration, poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. To bolster Yemen's capacity to address HIV/Aids, the UNDP signed in May a US$10.6 million (Dh38.9m) three-year programme document with the Yemen government, Mr Abdulmajeed said.

Financed by the Global Fund, the programme aims to support the government's attempts to contain the spread of HIV/Aids in Yemen, provide care to those suffering from the virus and implement internationally recognised rights, which include entitlement to medical care. It also aims to increase levels of safe blood for transfusion by establishing and enforcing national blood safety standards, and raise awareness of HIV/Aids among political and community leaders and the general population, said Mr Abdulmajeed.

A national HIV/Aids strategy was prepared and approved by the government in 2001 but had not met its targets, Mr Abdulmajeed said. "HIV/Aids issues must be incorporated into government policy and legislation," he said. "The work being done is less than what it should be due to lack of institutional work among government agencies." However, he said the UNDP, donors and civil society organisations were doing their part to raise awareness of HIV/Aids and improve blood safety. Even religious leaders were getting involved.

"We have trained a number of religious leaders and they have developed a guide in which they have defined the issues to address and how to use the appropriate language." @Email:malqadhi@thenational.ae