More than 400,000 Arabs now have killer disease AIDS workshop in Yemen breaks silence in Arab region [Archives:2002/41/Health]

October 7 2002

SANA’A – HIV/AIDS is still not commonly talked about in the Arab world.
But through a week-long, UN-sponsored workshop held here last week, Yemen has been chosen as the regional country to help break the silence about the killer disease.
The Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 workshop aimed at bringing HIV/AIDS issues to the fore of public debate, and help a stronger response, brought together a selected group of UNDP policy advisors, HIV/AIDS experts, UNAIDS officials, National AIDS program managers and people living with HIV/AIDS.
The event is the first ever regional project on HIV/AIDS.
It provided participants with an opportunity to learn from colleagues in the Arab region as well as from other regions.
A number of research papers and studies were presented in the workshop and participants looked at approaches that UNDP has applied successfully in other regions of the world.
All Arab countries have reported increases in HIV/AIDS rates over the past two years, and the number of infections continues to rise steadily.
UNAIDS estimates that 80,000 people became newly infected in 2001, brining the total of people living with HIV/AIDS in the region to 440,000 according to a press release issued by the UNDP office.
“While the Arab States are generally regarded as a low-prevalence region, this is no reason for complacency. The region must ensure that an appropriate level of response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic is in place,” said Zahir Jamal, chief of regional programs for Arab States at UNDP.
The press release said that Yemen, along with Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan are the Arab countries hit the worst by the epidemic.
Yemen was chosen as a site for first workshop because policy of the UNDP gives attention to HIV/AIDS in the least-developed countries in the region.
The HIV/AIDS Arab program aims to implement a series of high-priority regional interventions that will pave the way for country level follow-up.
James Rawley, UN representative in Yemen, said that Yemen is a leader in the Arab world in terms of addressing HIV/AIDS issues, and this is also why the first regional workshop has been held in Yemen.
“Our knowledge on the number of infected people with HIV/AIDS has improved significantly, although we still are not satisfied with the statistics. Most importantly, a national HIV/AIDS strategy, a document that looks at both the reasons why Yemen is at high-risk, and what can be done about it, has been prepared by a group of 50 individuals from the government, civil society including religious leaders, and the military with some donors,” he said.
This is a very important achievement, he pointed out, as it is important at this time to look at the many reasons why this epidemic could be devastating in terms of the health and development prospects of Yemen.
Rawley said the UNDP has been working in Yemen on two levels; one to get better information on not only the number of infected people, but also the reasons Yemen is at high risk of becoming a highly-infected country, and two, to bring that information to the attention of decision makers.
He stressed that if steps are taken by leadership acting with courage, if the community honestly faces this issue, and if the international community providing adequate support, there is every reason that Yemen can continue to minimize the potential impact of the epidemic.
He said that all UN representative in Arab countries taking part in the event would like to come with a vision for Yemen to have the lowest rate in the entire world, and that it would continue to be known internationally as a region that provides the most compassionate and loving care to those unfortunate people living with HIV/AIDS
Walid Badawi, regional program advisor, regional bureau for Arab States, pointed out that the philosophy of this program is that action has to be taken now before falling into the trap of other less fortunate countries.
He said that there are a number of catalytic interventions that can be taken at the regional level to begin a process whereby a leadership is developed at the country level, where the true fight lies both within the UNDP and governments.
“We also have a number of interventions under this regional program that aim to catalyze others segments of the society like civil society organizations, especially these working with HIV/AIDS,” he said.
“We aim to develop a network for civil society organizations working on HIV/AIDS to strengthen their ability to exchange and share information and advocate within their respective communities. The regional program aims also to address the question of the mobile populations, like in the Horn of Africa countries as well as the Maghrib region,” he added.
Workshops will be held to address what problems of mobility and its impact on HIV/AIDS in these two sub-regions. Information on HIV/AIDS in Yemen is being used a flagship for the region.
“We hope to encourage countries to develop these necessary databases,” he commented.
He also said that the program focuses on the role of the media, pointing out that there will be a regional workshop for media leaders, journalists and satellite TVs to strengthen their capacity to speak more openly about issues surrounding the region
Dr. Monica Sharma, principal advisor and team Leader, special initiative on HIV/AIDS, bureau for development policy said that several Arab countries have recognized that there is a problem that can escalate tremendously. They recognize that there is an experience in the world today that when the problem is small, something can be done.
UNDP is one of several organizations that are working to deal with this global epidemic.
“Some of the issues we have the world over is to engage with the highest levels, to work for political commitment and additional resources. A fight against HIV/AIDS is not just a fight with top leaders or heads of governments; everybody at all levels and sectors have to be engaged,” she said. “So UNDP is stimulating and providing the platform for such leaderships at all levels to come and address the issue from all levels.
“We are also working to look what can media can do and support governments and civil society. We have very concrete things we would like to do related to strengthening leadership, supporting governments, civil society and people living with the epidemic,” she added.