In the United States, more than a million people are infected with the HIV virus. Certain groups - gay men, African-Americans, drug users - have been affected more than others. While the numbers of known HIV and AIDS cases among the Arab-American community are relatively low compared to other groups, experts believe that underreporting and secrecy, due to the stigma AIDS carries for many Muslims, are major obstacles to preventing the spread of the virus and to treating infected populations.
The area around Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, is home to the nation's largest Arab-American community. Nearly sixty cases of HIV or AIDS have been reported there, but public health researcher Adnan Hammad believes the actual number is much higher, especially among women, who are less likely than men to be tested for the virus. Dr. Hammad says this can have deadly consequences.
"The female population in our community is still surrounded with cultural taboos about sex and sexual behavior, and therefore - with most of the cases - when we discover them, they are in the AIDS stage, not in the HIV stage. This means - to me, as a public health person - that [because] this community is coming forward for testing at the later stage, education and awareness are very important factors."
Dr. Hammad has developed programs to increase education and awareness, so those infected with HIV can get treatment when it's most effective. Imam Mohamad Mardini, head of the American Muslim Center in Dearborn, is helping lead the campaign. He says one of his main targets is young people.
"We tend to start at the early age and start teaching them about practicing responsible behavior, especially in the sexual arena. [OPT] And also try to let them know that it doesn't just affect those who have made bad choices with their sexual behavior, but that this disease can be contracted by other methods - people working in hospitals, people transferring blood. [END OPT] We're trying to say, come forward, test yourself. Millions of people get infected. So we are trying to present this [information] to them so they will come forward and not be afraid of the shame or taboo."
Imam Mardini acknowledges that presenting information about AIDS means talking about sex - a controversial subject in Islam, as it is in other religions.
"I really encourage people to abstain from sex until they get to marriage, but if something happens during the course of one's life - we're not angels, we're all human, we make mistakes - he should take precautions. We always encourage them to be safe, to be clean, to do what they have to do according to the religion."
The imam says the education campaign has brought about an improvement in his community's awareness of AIDS, thanks to new publications in Arabic and English, seminars and discussions with various groups. Health experts hope that increased awareness will lead to reduced numbers of infections.