Saturday, December 6, 2008

Symptoms or not, everyone should be tested for HIV

Copyright (c) 2008 The Daily Star

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Jad (not his real name) thinks he became infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, two years ago, during a one-night stand with someone he met in a nightclub.

"We were very drunk and I'm not sure I used a condom," he explained. After hearing about a hospital that provided confidential HIV testing some time later, Jad decided to go. "I wasn't worried that I was infected, but I felt I should have the check anyway, just to be sure."

When his tests came back positive, Jad was surprised.

"I didn't know much about the illness, and I didn't have any symptoms," he recalled. "I thought you had to have symptoms to be infected. I didn't think getting HIV was something that would happen to me. You never think it's going to be you."

For Jad, coming to terms with having HIV hasn't been the only difficulty. Like in many parts of the world, there is much stigma and legally sanctioned discrimination attached to the disease in Lebanon.

"I felt I had to tell my parents, who were shocked, but I haven't told any of my friends," he said. "I'm afraid their opinion of me would change. Having to hide this from them is difficult for me and often I feel very sad that I can't tell them."

He found his career options were limited, too. "You have to get an HIV test if you want to work abroad," Jad said, staring intently at the floor. "I'll never be allowed to work in the Gulf now," where he had hoped to get a better job.

Jad is one of 1,172 people reported to be living with HIV/AIDS virus in Lebanon, although the true figure is likely double that as there are an unknown number of additional cases of people who don't know that they are infected.

According to the Ministry of Public Health's National AIDS Program (MOPH-NAP), 116 new cases of infection were reported in 2008 alone. Of all those reported as living with the virus, 81.9 per cent were males, and 51.5 per cent were between the ages of 31 and 50. More than half of those infected were identified as heterosexual and 67.6% were infected with HIV through sexual intercourse. All are entitled to free medication from the Lebanese government. Marking Worlds AIDS Day on Monday, MOPH-NAP, in collaboration with UN agencies and 15 Lebanese nongovernmental organizations, held a health exhibition at the Cultural Center in Sin al-Fil.

According to Mustafa al-Nakib, manager of the MOPH-NAP, the purpose of the exhibition was "to promote awareness and testing of HIV/AIDS" in line with one of this year's World AIDS Campaign slogans, "Take the Lead and Get Tested." Four tents had been set up, said Nakib, where people could get free and confidential HIV tests and be given their results the same day. "We sent thousands of SMS messages, had spots on talk shows and held a press conference two days ago to promote the day," he added.

MOPH-NAP has good reason to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS as it has said the spread of the virus has accelerated. "Experts warn that if current trends continue, more than 15 countries in the Arab region could face infection rates of 4 per cent by 2015," says a MOPH-NAP information pack.

The official figure of 1,172 cases in Lebanon "does not reflect the real situation because the response to HIV in Lebanon has been limited and efforts to mitigate the spread have not succeeded in curb the increasing number of people contracting HIV each year," it adds.

In an effort to contain the spread of HIV, MOPH-NAP has established 20 Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCTs) centers throughout Lebanon, offering free, confidential and anonymous HIV testing and counseling services. In addition, more than 70 people had been trained as HIV testing counselors. So far, 1,011 people have benefited from testing, and 11 people were found to be HIV positive.

Addressing Jad's remark that many countries required HIV tests before issuing work permits, Nakib said the practice was "extremely discriminatory" and that work was being done to abolish the law. However, Nakib wasn't optimistic the law "would be abolished in the near future."

Calling for decisive action on HIV/AIDS, MOPH-NAP said, "Experience shows that where there is strong and committed leadership, significant advances in the response to HIV can be achieved." The governmental body also called upon Lebanon's private sector to take up the fight against HIV/AIDS, saying that as it employed large numbers of young adults, it was "well positioned to adopt and implement policies, disseminate prevention and awareness, and help fight stigma and discrimination which are critical to combating HIV."

Such campaigns have "to be in continuum and sustained," added Nakib, or they will fail to prevent new infections.