Stigma exacerbates Egypt’s HIV incidence increase
CAIRO - HIV cases have been increasing at an alarming pace in Egypt due to changing social traditions, open sexual relations, stigma and inadequate medical practices, officials said.
Health specialists say HIV cases will become more prevalent unless serious preventive measures are taken to keep the virus from spreading.
“Health authorities are working really hard to curb the disease but it will take much more than that to limit the number of cases,” said Sawsan el-Sheikh, president of the Egyptian AIDS Society. “In recent years, there has been a change in the lifestyle of a large number of people and this — among other things — is exacerbating the problem.”
Egyptians have more sexual freedom than ever and some engage in unsafe sex, making them prone to contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Poor medical procedures are also among risk factors contributing to the rise in HIV infections.
“Medical practitioners rarely sterilise their medical equipment after usage, which makes the risk of transmitting the virus greater,” said Sheikh, whose society is one of six NGOs fighting the spread of HIV and offering psychological help for patients.
The United Nations announced that the number of new HIV cases has been growing at the rate of 25- 30% annually. It estimated that Egypt has more than 11,000 cases of HIV.
HIV is being found in more young and adolescent people than any other age group, the United Nations said.
The crisis is made worse when infected Egyptians, fearing discrimination and being stigmatised, do not reveal their HIV status because in Egyptian society such a diagnosis is associated with immorality.
One patient getting support at Sheikh’s society, who needed leg surgery to avoid amputation, was turned away by the surgeon when it was revealed he was HIV-positive.
Sherin Mahmud, a 35-year-old HIV patient, was abandoned by her family when they learned about her infection.
“Now, none of my family members thinks of visiting me or even calling me on the phone,” she said.
Mahmud said she learned about her infection five years ago when she was about to give birth. She contracted the virus from her husband who had extramarital affairs. Her son is also HIV positive. Mahmud said she has been living like an outcast inside her family circle and in the wider society.
The last time she let anybody know about her situation was a year ago when she had intolerable tooth pain. She said she made the mistake of telling the oral surgeon about her condition.
“Instead of treating my tooth, the surgeon moved away and asked me to leave the clinic immediately,” Mahmud said.
“Many of this country’s health-care providers do not know how to behave in situations like this,” Sheikh said. “This can be an additional reason for the spread of the virus, something the health authorities are working hard to change.”
The National AIDS Programme, an initiative of the Health Ministry that seeks to raise awareness about the dangers of AIDS and ensure the availability of anti-retroviral therapies, offers training courses for medical practitioners on the best mechanisms for dealing with HIV patients.
The goal is to curb HIV incidence within five years, said programme director Walid Kamal.
“The plan is meant to protect those prone to contracting the virus through awareness and encouraging them to undergo tests to ensure that they are not infected,” Kamal said. “It also seeks to make relevant medications available for free nationwide.”
The discrepancy between UN estimates and the number of HIV cases registered by the Health Ministry indicate that only those who had approached state-run hospitals to demand treatment are documented.
As for the remaining patients, Kamal said, the ministry knows nothing about them.
Sheikh said people might be infected but do not know it or are afraid to report their infection, lest they would be stigmatised.
Mahmud said she gets free medicine from a state-run hospital but she never tells independent health-care providers about her infection.
When she was kicked out of the dental clinic she was in pain and sought treatment elsewhere but she did not reveal her HIV status.
The oral surgeon removed her tooth then put the blood-stained tools he used on the side. Mahmud said she was not sure he would sterilise them afterward.
“I could have told him that I was infected after the surgery but I knew that he would get very angry, so I decided to leave without saying a word,” she said.
Egypt ranks behind only Iran, Sudan and Somalia in the Middle East for the rate at which the HIV epidemic is spreading.