Unity has ensured low HIV and AIDS infection rates

Dr. Ali Shaar (L) and Ziad Yaish from UNFPA (Mel Frykberg/IPS)

EAST JERUSALEM, West Bank (IPS) - Palestinians from all ranks of society have pulled together to tackle the issue of AIDS, despite the increasing factional violence and chaos in the Palestinian territories.

Hamas, which has authority in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in charge of the West Bank, and Christian and Muslim leaders, in conjunction with various UN organizations and non-governmental organizations, have worked together to ensure that the Palestinian territories retain a very low rate of HIV and AIDS infection.

Simultaneously, further awareness and prevention are being proactively tackled.

“We have implemented an ABC strategy [‘A’ stands for abstention, ‘B’ for beware and ‘C’ for condoms],” Ziad Yaish from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) based in Jerusalem and active in AIDS prevention told IPS.

Dr. Saad Ramlawi, chairman of the Palestine National AIDS Committee (NAC) and director-general of Palestinian healthcare and public health, told IPS that the Palestinian territories had recorded just about 80 cases of HIV since 1987, mostly men. Gaza accounted for 24 cases.

A little more than half of the infections were through sexual intercourse, primarily heterosexual, and the rest through blood transfusions, drug abuse and other means.

“Over half of the recorded AIDS cases in the Palestinian territories have died, and seven have reached an advanced stage and are receiving full anti-retroviral medication which was introduced in February of this year by the PA,” said Ramlawi.

“The Palestinian Ministry of Health has assumed full responsibility for these cases at a cost of 2,000 dollars per person per month. The PA also takes care of counseling and related medical follow-ups as well as unrelated treatment including dental care and surgery.” In 2003 UNFPA recommended the establishment of a UN HIV/AIDS Theme Group in the Palestinian territories, and this led to establishment of the National AIDS Council (NAC).

The advocacy of the two organizations involves coordination between the West Bank and Gaza through video conferences, workshops, training health workers in sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS prevention, monitoring and evaluation, resource mobilization, and policy and advocacy needs. The UN AIDS Theme Group provides technical support to the NAC.

To add to sex and AIDS education that is a compulsory part of the Palestinian school curriculum, the UNFPA in conjunction with the PA also uses the peer to peer approach and the media, trains school counsellors and university groups, and works with women’s advocacy and family planning groups.

UNFPA is in the process of introducing a five-year plan to further educate Palestinians about AIDS.

Although the causes of AIDS in the Palestinian territories are much the same as elsewhere, there are social, political and religious factors that introduce new dimensions.

“Our five-year project will involve researching high-risk groups such as prostitutes and gay men whom we know very little about due to the taboo nature of these issues in our highly religious and conservative society,” Dr. Ali Shaar, a national program officer with UNFPA told IPS.

“We plan to use a snowball effect of establishing where we believe these groups are operating and then studying their dynamics by approaching women’s shelters, women’s jails and perhaps the police,” he added.

“Apart from establishing contact with prostitutes and gay men, two of the highest risk groups, we are also trying to educate men about the necessity of using condoms,” said Shaar.

“Traditionally, sexual reproductive health issues have targeted women, as men in our patriarchal society have regarded this as primarily a women’s issue,” added Yaish.

There has been strong support for AIDS education from both Christian leaders in the West Bank and Muslim leaders in Gaza. Yaish and Shaar both believe that Palestinians lead the way regionally in HIV education and prevention.

“The Palestinian National AIDS Council held a World AIDS Day conference in the West Bank and Gaza in December of 2006,” recalls Yaish. “A Palestinian man, who was suffering from AIDS, introduced himself and explained his circumstances. Not only was the audience sympathetic and interested but afterwards a prominent Muslim leader and a prominent Christian leader hugged and kissed the young man. It was very moving and this helped people to understand that AIDS sufferers were neither dangerous nor a threat to other people.”

The activists are being vigilant against new risks. Lack of opportunity, poverty and a political identity crisis have made drug addiction a particular problem amongst the youth in east Jerusalem, says Yaish. And due to East Jerusalem’s close proximity with the Jewish West Jerusalem, where there is a higher occurrence of prostitution and drug abuse.

In Gaza, the problems of drugs and prostitution are higher than one would expect. Many day laborers came in contact with prostitution and drugs when they worked in Israel before the borders were closed.

“Furthermore, the extreme poverty and social distress in the coastal territory, following Israel’s economic embargo, has caused many people to look for coping mechanisms and even with financial difficulties illegal, backstreet drugs are finding their way onto the streets,” Shaar said. “More women are also resorting to prostitution.”

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