Feature story

Middle East and North Africa records the highest number of HIV infections ever in the region in 2010 but recent progress is promising

04 December 2011

The Middle East and North Africa regional Report on AIDS 2011 is launched in Cairo on the 4th of December 2011.
Credit: UNAIDS.

A report on the HIV epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) shows that while the overall HIV prevalence in the region is still low, the rise in new infections since 2001 has put the MENA region among the top two regions in the world with the fastest growing HIV epidemic.

The report was released on the 4 December under the auspices of the League of Arab States (LAS) in Cairo, Egypt. The event brought together the Arab States delegates and Ambassadors accredited to the Arab Republic of Egypt, civil society organizations including associations of people living with HIV, donors, religious leaders, community groups and media, private sector, Goodwill Ambassadors and UN agencies.

The report shows that there has been significant policy development and scale up of programmes indicating an increased political will in the region to address the AIDS epidemic. The majority of countries in the region have put in place national strategies to address AIDS and some have initiated programmes for key populations at higher risk, including sex workers, people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men.

UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director Programmes, Dr Paul De Lay, applauded the progress made. “Ten years ago, HIV was not on the political agenda in the Middle East and North Africa. Today, all countries in the region have become more engaged in the HIV response,” said Dr De Lay.

According to the report, the estimated number of adults and children living with HIV in the region increased from 330,000 [200,000-480,000] in 2001 to 580,000 [430,000- 810,000] in 2010. The report attributes this rise to increased number of new HIV infections among key populations at higher risk and transmission of the virus to their sexual partners.

In 2010, there were 84,000 [57,000-130,000] new HIV infections and 39,000 [28,000-53,000] AIDS-related deaths in the Middle East and North Africa region. The annual estimated new HIV infections and AIDS-related mortality has almost doubled in the past decade. While countries have increased provision of antiretroviral therapy (ART) by 25% in the last year, the total regional coverage remains low, with only 8% of eligible people living with HIV accessing treatment in 2010.

Civil society organizations are now playing a more prominent role in the HIV response compared to just a few years ago. However, key challenges to scale up AIDS programmes among key populations at higher risk of HIV still remain. “Work with key populations is difficult in settings where the levels of stigma and discrimination are high and the overall support from governments is limited,” said Mrs Hind Khatib-Othman, UNAIDS Director of the Regional Support team for MENA region.

Key political declarations adopted in the region include the 2010 Dubai Consensus Statement and the 2011 Riyadh Charter. Professor Ziad A. Memish, Assistant Deputy Minister of Health for Preventive Medicine of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, representing the Minister of Health who is also Chair of the Ministerial Steering Committee of the LAS, spoke about the Arab Initiative—a follow up mechanism to the Riyadh Charter—as an important step for the region to ensure it lives up to international commitments.

Dr Sima Bahous, Assistant Secretary General and Head of the Social Development Sector at the League of Arab States welcomed the report and pointed to the existing relations of cooperation between the Arab League and UNAIDS. Dr Bahous also stressed the Arab League’s keenness to work with all the relevant stakeholders to achieve the targets of the Millennium Developmental Goals and the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS adopted by the UN General Assembly. “It is time to act on the commitments and take necessary measures to keep HIV prevalence low,” said Dr Bahous.

The report outlines many recommendations on how to strengthen the AIDS response in the MENA region. These include review of laws and policies that hinder access to HIV prevention and treatments services, to invest smartly using an evidence-informed and human rights based approach, and the importance of strong political leadership.

“Decision-makers need to demonstrate the political courage to focus the response on the populations most affected by HIV. The 2011 Political Declaration should be the foundation for such leadership,” concluded Dr De Lay.