Common misconceptions about HIV increase discrimination [Archives:2008/1180/Health]

August 11 2008

Alia Ishaq
While Yemen is considered one of the countries with the world's lowest number of HIV and AIDS infections, some concerned organizations are worried that this is simply due to unreported cases and lack of surveillance.

According to Yemen's National AIDS Control Program, the country has 2,431 reported HIV cases. However, the program concedes that these numbers probably don't accurately indicate the true number of HIV patients in Yemen, since few people even realize they've contracted the disease while others choose not to report their infection.

In 2003, the World Health Organization estimated that the number of HIV patients in Yemen could be as many as 24,000 due to unreported cases.

A 2007 report published by Yemen's Public Health and Population Ministry in conjunction with the Marie Stopes Organization, a U.K.-based international reproductive health service provider, asked Yemenis if they knew of any HIV/AIDS cases.

Surprisingly, 15 percent of both rural and urban residents surveyed mentioned that they knew of at least one such case. However, attitudes toward those with HIV or AIDS were overwhelmingly negative, with more than half of the 1,400 respondents maintaining that those with HIV/AIDS should be “separated” from the rest of society.

The National AIDS Program reports 108 new cases discovered in the first half of 2008, 94 of which were among Yemenis and only 14 among foreigners – a fact challenging the Yemeni perception that these diseases mainly affect foreigners and refugees.

The program also has been promoting a new service – an HIV/AIDS hotline reachable by simply dialing 175. While the hotline purportedly is designed to help answer questions about HIV/AIDS, the call was never picked up, despite the fact that the Yemen Times phoned the hotline more than five times throughout its hours of operation and on different days of the week. Based on this complete lack of response, it's unclear whether the hotline even exists.


According to a report by the Ministry of Public Health and Population, there are many misconceptions and a lack of information about HIV and AIDS, particularly among those living in rural areas, which includes approximately three-fourths of all Yemenis.

The report's surveys revealed that Yemenis still often believe that HIV can be transmitted through shaking hands, hugging, mosquito bites or other actions as innocuous as sharing drinking glasses or plates. Such misconceptions are a large reason for the discrimination many HIV/AIDS patients feel.

Such discrimination against HIV/AIDS patients is apparent even at hospitals, with some hospitals refusing to treat such patients altogether.

In August 2006, the Yemen Times published the story of Khalid Mahyoob, a former nurse at Aden's Al-Jumhury Hospital who became infected with HIV through contact with an HIV-positive patient.

A few weeks ago, Mahyoob formed an association called “Life Impulse” to correct misconceptions about HIV/AIDS and fight against HIV/AIDS discrimination. The association is sponsored by Yemeni businessman Abdu Sammakh.

Mahyoob notes that because 60 percent of the association's staff is HIV-positive, they are determined to do their best. As Adel Mahyoob says about his brother, “He's in a fight, not just against this disease, but also against the discrimination he faces from society.”

He points out that the situation hasn't affected only his brother Khalid, but their entire family, including himself and his children. He recounts, “My daughter had to leave her school because she suffered unbearable discrimination. Other children avoided her because they were scared she might have the virus like her uncle.”

He adds that he too faces daily discrimination from his work colleagues and even from his own relatives because he shares a house with his sick brother.

Khalid Mahyoob notes that he had to leave his job as a nurse at the hospital. “Even though my colleagues were nice to me, I chose to leave the hospital. However, patients usually were scared when they learned that I was HIV-positive, requesting that I not come near them.”

He adds that because he faces much discrimination, even from within his own family, he knows how other HIV patients feel, further explaining, “I try to give others all the help they need so they won't face the same situation that I do now.”

Mahyoob maintains that Yemenis have a deep misunderstanding of HIV/AIDS patients and how they contracted the virus. He says many believe that all HIV-positive individuals contracted the disease by behaving immorally, ignoring the fact that HIV may be transmitted to innocent wives and children, as well as through accidents such as what happened to him.

There's a clear gap in awareness if people believe on one hand that HIV may be transmitted by a handshake and yet, on the other, that those living with HIV must have engaged in forbidden sexual relationships.

Next week, Life Impulse will conduct a training course for between 20 and 25 military officers. The group seeks to raise awareness by explaining the truth and dispelling the myths about contracting HIV/AIDS.

Mahyoob explains that his association chose to combat common misconceptions about HIV/AIDS among military officers first because they have the potential to impact the hundreds of other soldiers with whom they live and work.