Feature story

HIV in Libya: New evidence and evolving response

28 June 2012

L to R: H.E Dr Fatima Elhamrosh, Libyan Minister of Health, Dr Badereddin Annajar, Director General of the National Center for Disease Control and Olavi Elo, Special Envoy for the UNAIDS Executive Director to Libya.
Credit: UNAIDS

The HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs in the Libyan capital Tripoli is at an alarming 87% according to the results from bio-behavioral surveys conducted by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine with the support of the European Union. Reaching out to 328 injecting drug users, 227 men who have sex with men (MSM) and 69 female sex workers, the study was designed to indicate the progression of HIV prevalence among key populations at higher risk.

The results of the study were presented during the first National HIV Symposium in post-conflict Libya that took place 26 June in the Libyan capital Tripoli under the auspices of the Libyan Minister of Health in collaboration with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In light of the new evidence, the Libyan Minister of Health, H.E. Dr Fatima Elhamrosh called for urgent action from all concerned sectors in Libya. “We will need to develop and implement comprehensive programs to respond to the growing AIDS epidemic among key populations in Libya,” said Minister Elhamrosh.

Before the revolution that took place in the spring of 2011, it was difficult for UNAIDS and international development partners to work systematically in Libya. AIDS was not openly discussed nor considered a priority. The new data confirms that the HIV situation in Libya is worse than what was officially reported in the past.

“We very much welcome the remarkable political commitment of the government of Libya towards responding to the AIDS epidemic,” said Hind Khatib, Director of UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Middle East and North Africa. “The commitment of Her Excellency, the Minister of Health to expand drug treatment services providing a range of evidence-based responses and the establishment of eight Voluntary Counselling and Testing centers focusing on key populations are clear examples of the growing governmental commitment,” added Ms Khatib.

We will need to develop and implement comprehensive programs to respond to the growing AIDS epidemic among key populations in Libya

Libyan Minister of Health, H.E. Dr Fatima Elhamrosh

UNAIDS recommendations in relation to HIV prevention responses among injecting drug users stress the need to develop a comprehensive set of measures consisting of the full range of treatment options—notably drug substitution treatment—and the implementation of harm reduction measures—through, among others, peer outreach to injecting drug users, and sterile needle and syringe programmes. Also, voluntary confidential HIV counseling and testing, prevention of sexual transmission of HIV among drug users (including condoms and prevention and treatment for sexually transmitted infections), access to primary healthcare and access to antiretroviral therapy. Such an approach must be based on promoting, protecting and respecting the human rights of drug users.

Following the change of government, UNAIDS has provided technical support to the Ministry of Health and UN Country Team in Libya to address the emerging HIV priorities. This has resulted in better identification of priorities, improved understanding of the HIV situation and response, the establishment of the Joint UN team on AIDS and improved commitment from the government, UN and civil society organizations.

At the end of the symposium, participants endorsed a statement of commitment to scale up the national AIDS response in Libya with focus on HIV prevention programs among key populations, rights of people living with HIV and expanded role of civil society in the national response.

UNODC also re-launched the second phase of their HIV project in Libya that focuses on HIV prevention among people who injecting drug and in prison settings. The project, funded by the Libyan government, was suspended in 2011 due to the security problems and is now being resumed.

"UNODC warmly welcomes the expressions of political will and commitment by the Libyan government to respond to the HIV and drug use crisis as a matter of national priority,” stated Masood Karimipour, Regional Representative of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “UNODC is proud to be in partnership with Libya to help provide a comprehensive response to prevent drug use and the spread of HIV as well as to treat people in need in coordination with all national stakeholders, UNAIDS and the international community,” Added Mr Karimipour.