What is HIV? And what’s its status in Egypt?
The human immunodeficiency virus (or HIV) is a deadly and chronic virus that causes HIV infection and over time causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (known as AIDS). AIDS causes a failure of the immune system and allows more infections and cancers to grow. HIV is often sexually transmitted but can also occur via blood transfers or sharing needles.
Globally, HIV infections have been declining — but not in Egypt. Unbeknownst to most Egyptians, HIV has actually been spreading at an alarming rate in Egypt. According to UNAIDS, there were around 11,000 cases of HIV in Egypt in 2016, and that number has grown by up to 40%, reports the Associated Press.
Social Stigma and Sad Realities
The alarming factor here is the social stigma that hampers all efforts to fight the epidemic as well as a clear lack of funding.
“This is alarming to us because of the growth of the epidemic and the discontinuation of interest from donors in funding,” said Ahmed Khamis, of the U.N. AIDS agency.
Nonetheless, the real number of HIV cases could actually be much higher than the numbers given above, considering testing is not regularly undertaken throughout the country, despite the governmental efforts to provide free and anonymous tests in 17 governorates as per Egypt Today’s interview with Minister of Health Ahmed Emad el-Din Rady.
The social stigma, which is rooted with HIV’s association with drug use and sexual relations, deters Egyptians from getting tested, fearing exclusion from society and punishment.
“The problem is that there is an assumption that those who have HIV are drug users, homosexuals or sex workers, but this is not true. Those indeed could be the ones who are most at risk of contracting this virus. But they also have families — husbands, wives and children — who if infected are forced to live with this disease for the rest of their lives in a society that heavily discriminates against anybody living with HIV,” said Khamis.
To have HIV and live in Egypt is a tragedy due to discrimination from family and friends, as well as losing your job and sometimes being obliged to move around because of aggressive neighbors. When asked about the social stigma and what it means, Ayman, an Egytian who is HIV-positive, said:
“It’s there by all its meanings. People avoid you. They don’t know how HIV is transferred. They don’t know anything about anything, and they treat you very badly. You can be kicked out of your home. If it’s not your property, if you are renting it, you would be kicked out. In your job, you cannot say that [you have HIV], because if you said it, you would be fired. They would find many other reasons to fire you. It would not be HIV. I have been working in a place for one and a half years. I didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t say that.”
The Arab Weekly tells another shocking story of Sherin Mahmud, who contracted the virus from her husband’s extramarital affairs. She decided to visit a dentist because of a painful toothache, and when she informed the dentist of her HIV status, he asked her to leave the clinic immediately. So instead of getting treated she was ousted. She also added that “none of her friends or family members visit her anymore”.
According to UN figures, Egypt ranks behind only Iran, Sudan and Somalia in the Middle East for the rate at which the epidemic is spreading. Treating people could cost thousands of dollars per person, and there is a budget that needs to be set and money that needs to be allocated to limiting and treating the virus.
The Ministry of Health, UNAIDS, and NAP have run awareness campaigns and gathered celebrities to raise awareness about HIV among Egyptians, but with a growing population of around 100 million, it’s not easy to reach the whole population.
The best way to reach Egyptians is through religious leaders, due to the cultural importance Egyptians place in religion and God. The responsibility of sheikhs and priests should be not only to raise awareness, but to teach tolerance and acceptance towards those who have HIV and not exclude but rather accept one other.
We need to actively work together and consolidate all initiatives and efforts by NGOs, civil societies and the government in order to control the epidemic and change conceptions and stigmas of HIV by raising awareness.