A new report says many governments in the Muslim world have been slow to respond to the spread of HIV and AIDS in their societies. The report from the Seattle, Washington-based National Bureau of Asian Research urges Muslim governments to take a more aggressive approach to HIV education and prevention.
The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS estimates the total HIV population of North Africa, the Middle East and predominantly Muslim Asia at nearly one million people, a figure the new study's authors say is severely understated.
Laura Kelley, an infectious diseases specialist and an author of the report, has been researching HIV/AIDS in the Muslim world for three years. She tells VOA that poor monitoring should not be mistaken for low infection rates. "When you start talking about the Muslim the world you are talking about 1.3 billion people. Chances are you have more than one million infected when you talk about all those countries rolled together. Inadequate surveillance has led people to believe that the disease simply doesn't exist. We are challenging leaders of these countries to go out and adequately test for the disease and find out what the real prevalences are," she said.
She says one of the problems in Muslim culture is the reluctance to admit the presence of high-risk behaviors such as intravenous drug use, prostitution, adultery, sexual promiscuity and homosexuality. "It is in part influenced by officials' unwillingness or lack of ability to address what behaviors are on the street, or what real behaviors are, as opposed to behaviors that should be expected from good Muslims," she said.
The study points to Iran as an example of a conservative Islamic society that is working to overcome this unwillingness and direct efforts at lessening the social stigma associated with the disease. Iran has passed laws requiring hospitals to treat HIV-positive people and instituted needle-exchange programs in high-drug use areas of the capital, Tehran. "Iran has taken great strides forward in creating legislation that will help them live the rest of their lives with dignity," she said.
In Bangladesh, another predominantly Muslim country, the study also found several successful initiatives geared toward education and prevention. Ms. Kelley explains the difference between the approaches in Iran and Bangladesh. "Iran it's really the government that has taken the lead in all of these things. Bangladesh has a lot going on but it's largely the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the international community," she said.
In the last few years, religious leaders in a number of places across the Muslim world have begun to educate people about HIV and AIDS. "They focus on prevention efforts, on abstaining from extra-marital sex or homosexual contact, and they encourage monogamy, but in cases of existing infection, they will also encourage infected people to use condoms so they do not continue to spread the disease," she said.
Although the first HIV/AIDS cases that were recorded in the Muslim world occurred in the mid-1980s, government and religious leaders have been slow to take an aggressive approach to combating the disease. The study cautions those countries could pay the price later. "Because states aren't feeling it yet doesn't mean it won't happen. If they continue to neglect the problem, they may be faced with a much larger problem," she said.
The authors recommend Muslim governments improve their efforts to learn the real infection rates in their societies, initiate sweeping legislative and social changes, and accept help from the international community, which can share its experience in HIV/AIDS education and prevention.