The incidence of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is on the rise in the Muslim world, which is still living in denial over the reality of a potentially deadly infection, said South Africa-based paediatrician with interest in HIV research Dr Akhtar Hussain, who is on a visit to Karachi to attend the 32nd PMA biennial medical conference starting on Friday.
Speaking about it Dr Hussain said South Africa had the world’s largest burden of HIV disease with an estimated 5.6 million infected people. “Of this, 40 per cent to 42pc cases constituted mother-to-child HIV transmission, but the country is now on the road to bring this number to zero, as we have already reduced cases of mother-to-child transmission to 0.8pc,” he added.
Working for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV for the past 25 years in South Africa, Dr Hussain said he was shocked to hear the data shared by experts representing various Muslim countries at an international conference in Durban on HIV/AIDS a few months ago. “The gist of their speeches was that HIV/AIDS is increasing in Muslim countries especially along the Syria-Turkey border, in refugee camps, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia,” he observed.
According to him, the presence of HIV/AIDS in some of these countries had been unheard of only a decade ago but they all are reporting an increase of this infection. As mentioned in the conference, the HIV infection rate varied between three to 10 per cent in the countries, he said.
About the causes for the rise in HIV/AIDS, he said: “Muslim countries are in denial. They think it’s a problem of sex workers or the transgender community. In reality, however, the virus has nothing to do with religion, low-socio economic status or cast and it can infect anyone; irresponsible sexual behaviour that includes being heterosexual, bisexual or having multiple sexual partners, drug addiction, violence against women etc all increase vulnerability to HIV infection.”
The situation, he said, was complicated given the low social status accorded to women in these societies. “Muslims in Arab countries especially along the Syrian border exchange sex for money and food in refugee camps,” he added.
He said the practice of having multiple sexual partners was very common in Pakistan, though often kept secret. “Out of 400 Pakistanis tested for HIV at two medical camps in South Africa, six boys tested positive. Only one showed willingness for treatment and survived while the rest later died.” The sexually transmitted diseases increased HIV risk by 50pc to 60pc, he added.
South Africa winning
On teenage pregnancy in South Africa, he said it was like an epidemic involving mostly school and college girls. “The HIV incidence rate is 20pc to 25pc in teenage girls that also reflect higher incidence of HIV infection in sexually transmitted diseases. The psycho-social consequences of teenage pregnancies are huge; often girls are forced to leave education while there is little social and family acceptance for the unwanted baby,” he said.
Teenage pregnancy carried high risk for both mother and the baby as mothers’ body was not fully developed, he added. “Such pregnancies also destroy the family structure and often the girl is left alone to look after the baby.”
Myths and social stigmas posed a great challenge in battling HIV. “For instance, there is myth in African society that if you have sex with a young virgin, you will get cure from HIV. Also, we have ‘sugar daddies’ who exploit young women,” he said, adding alternative therapies looked as cure for HIV worsened patient condition.
With measures, for instance introduction of sex education, empowering women through knowledge and promoting safe sex barrier methods, the government had managed to bring the number of teenage pregnancies down, said Dr Hussain.
On mother-to-child transmission, he said that in the light of local researches showing success following administration of HIV therapy in infected pregnant mothers, the government had initiated a programme specifically targeting would-be mothers last year.
“It’s a government policy now that all pregnant women would be examined for the infection and anyone testing positive is immediately brought on the antiretroviral drug, provided free counselling and it is ensured that she has regular follow-ups.
“Since community health workers are involved in the programme, there is no chance of missing a pregnant woman. The therapy greatly minimizes HIV-transmission risk. Even if the baby is born negative, the case is followed up for two years,” he said.
He recommended the Pakistani authorities to introduce an HIV screening programme at international airports across the country. He said: “Expats visiting the country should be examined for the infection. The HIV rapid test hardly takes one minute for result.”