Dubai to welcome Aids experts

Aids experts will gather today for a two-day meeting to discuss the "epidemic" of the disease in the Middle East and North Africa.

Dr Abdulla Ustadi, an HIV consultant, says UNAids needs to raise awareness about the disease.
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DUBAI// Aids experts will gather today for a two-day meeting to discuss the "epidemic" of the disease in the Middle East and North Africa. Hosted by UNAids, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, delegates including government officials, doctors and UN staff will launch a report detailing how to tackle the "steadily growing" problem.

According to recent figures, there are around 630 UAE nationals living with HIV/Aids, and the number is rising. Expatriates who test positive are deported. The UNAids regional director, Hind Khatib, said it was essential that every country, rich and poor, understood the importance of investing in preventive measures to reduce rising rates of transmission. The number of people living with HIV increased by 110,000 to 310,000 in the Mena region between 2001 and 2008. In 2008 there were 35,000 new cases in the region.

"The prevalence is low in some of the countries but we need targeted prevention," Ms Khatib said. "Focus on sex workers and intravenous drug users for example. When we're in Dubai we hope to bring these topics to the attention of the policymakers. "It is important to act. We don't want to hear 'It's not our problem' or 'We don't have these problems, they are illegal'. We need action." It is almost 25 years since HIV was discovered, she added, and governments with low prevalence rates had a tendency to "relax" in the early days, storing up potential problems for the future.

Most of the GCC has low rates of HIV/Aids, but some countries have been praised for being more pro-active in prevention and treatment. In March, the UAE's National Aids Programme and the Ministry of Health released the 2010 UN Progress Report, containing comprehensive figures and acknowledged some of the key risk factors, such as prostitution and extramarital sex. It was the first time the country had made these figures public.

Dr Abdulla Ustadi, one of the most prominent HIV consultants in the country, said the UNAids meeting needed, more than anything, to raise awareness about the disease. "It is all about the awareness," he said. "People often dismiss this but it is at the heart of everything. There are many people here who are really not aware of the details of HIV/Aids." Last week the Council of Ministers approved a law that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of an applicant's HIV/Aids status. Expatriates and UAE nationals must still be tested before starting a new job.

"This is a huge step and has come at the right time," said Dr Ustadi. "Things are changing. By seeing what other countries have done, we can learn." According to a report from the regional office of the World Health Organisation, treatment coverage in is "only five per cent of estimated need". The report, which tracked trends of communicable diseases between 1978 and 2008 in the Eastern Mediterranean region, said there was an urgent need for more countries to focus on prevention and care needs of those most at risk of HIV/Aids.

According to the official list of delegates provided by Dubai Police, which is organising the UAE's participation, a limited number of health officials are expected to attend. Of the 32 UAE participants, two are from the Ministry of Health and the Dubai Health Authority. Other participating agencies include Dubai Civil Defence, the Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Social Affairs. Despite repeated approaches, no one from the Ministry of Health was available to comment on the meeting.