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Arab States Aim to Protect Rights of People with AIDS

Legal experts from 14 Arab countries are meeting in Cairo to review laws affecting the rights of people with HIV and AIDS. The U.N.-sponsored meeting is the first of its kind in the Arab world, where AIDS is a rapidly growing problem that is rarely talked about.

The United Nations says AIDS is a bigger problem in the Middle East than generally thought, and it is growing fast. But U.N. officials say many of the legal systems in the Arab world do not yet protect the rights of infected people.

The U.N. Children's Fund representative in Cairo, Erma Manoncourt, says even though HIV infection rates in the Middle East are low, they are rising. She said the problem needs to be addressed now.

"Addressing the legal issues of HIV/AIDS is key to mitigating the impact of this disease because while our numbers remain lower than our neighboring countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, stigma and discrimination are very damaging and present in our region," she said.

The Cairo meeting is cosponsored by five U.N. agencies and the League of Arab States. It is designed to start the process of updating the region's legal framework to, for example, protect the confidentiality of those diagnosed with the disease and keep people from losing their jobs if they are diagnosed HIV-positive.

Participants at the four-day conference come from all sides of their legal systems, from the members of parliament who make the laws to the police officers who enforce them.

AIDS is not often considered a major problem in the Middle East and North Africa. But Ms. Manoncourt says the region has the second-fastest-rising infection rate in the world, just behind the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. She says the number of reported infections in children under age 5 has quadrupled in the last four years.

But the issue is rarely discussed by government officials. Non-government groups working to stop sexually-transmitted diseases tend to keep a low profile. Part of the problem in addressing AIDS in the Arab world, analysts say, is the extreme taboo against discussing sexuality and drug use - two issues closely linked to the transmission of HIV.

So people living with AIDS often battle more than one stigma at the same time - over the disease itself, and over the activity that is perceived to lead to infection. That stigma often keeps people from being tested for the virus, which in turn makes it harder to keep them from infecting other people.

Last year, the United Nations sponsored a meeting of Arab religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, who together urged the abolition of discrimination against people living with HIV.

Nancy Bakir is an assistant secretary general at the League of Arab States. She says it is crucial for people to start talking about AIDS regardless of cultural taboos, so they can take action to stop it.

"According to the Arab culture and traditions, usually they do not talk about these issues," she said. "But, when they hear these things coming from a religious person, they will accept to talk about it. So we depend on education, we depend on the media, we depend on religion people to encourage people to talk on this disease and on this subject. Yes, it's something new."

While not part of the Arab world, Iran is one of the countries in the Middle East that experts identify as a leader when it comes to AIDS prevention. The government has aggressively promoted condom use and confidential HIV testing, as well as other policies seen as effective at curbing the spread of AIDS.

Tehran's enlightened approach to HIV and AIDS surprises many observers because of the country's otherwise restrictive theocratic stance on social issues. But sources familiar with the Iranian program say Iran's leaders seem to have recognized that concrete action is the only way to avoid a future health crisis.