World Aids Day: Drug breakthroughs and changing attitudes mean a better life for those with HIV in UAE

50 years on from the first recorded death, three Emiratis say treatment and acceptance has changed their lives

epa08034325 Sri Lankan health workers display red ribbons, an international symbol of human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) awareness, during an AIDS awareness march in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 30 November 2019. World AIDS Day is observed every year on 01 December to raise the awareness in the fight against HIV infection.  EPA/STRINGER
HIV on the rise in the region

A 2019 United Nations special analysis on Aids reveals 37 per cent of new HIV infections in the Mena region are from people injecting drugs.

New HIV infections have also risen by 29 per cent in western Europe and Asia, and by 7 per cent in Latin America, but declined elsewhere.

Egypt has shown the highest increase in recorded cases of HIV since 2010, up by 196 per cent.

Access to HIV testing, treatment and care in the region is well below the global average.  

Few statistics have been published on the number of cases in the UAE, although a UNAIDS report said 1.5 per cent of the prison population has the virus.

Three Emiratis with HIV have spoken of how medical breakthroughs and changing attitudes have changed their lives.

As World Aids Day was marked on Sunday, the three men spoke of living with the virus in the 21st century and their optimism for the future.

Many patients that test positive for HIV are living healthily in the UAE thanks to improving quality of care.

Despite that, the Middle East and North Africa is one of the few regions showing an increase in HIV, with 20,000 new cases last year.

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I had some weird reactions at work, but it did not bother me. My colleagues accept me now, and I am comfortable with them

Medical developments allow those with the virus like Bu Mohammed, 40, to lead a normal life. He married and became a parent without passing on HIV to his wife or child.

“It was a shock for my family when I told them,” he said, adding that he also took the decision to tell work colleagues and his manager.

“With the help of the doctor and my boss, I researched the disease.

“I had some weird reactions at work, but it did not bother me.

“My colleagues accept me now, and I am comfortable with them.”

His experience came from steroid use, injecting himself with the same hypodermic used by an gym buddy with the virus.

A keen sportsman, Mr Mohammed was diagnosed during an athletic performance test.

He now receives long-term treatment at Khalifa Hospital in Abu Dhabi.

A daily pill of Genvoya stops the virus from attacking the body’s immune cells. These CD4 T cells are crucial to fighting infection, but once destroyed, the body is vulnerable to the slightest infection that can be fatal.

Scientist examines a specimen using a dissecting microscope.

Access to retroviral drugs not only suppress HIV to improve life expectancy, but also make it untransmittable to others, such as children.

Mr Mohammed, who is now married with a child and as with other interviewees, asked not to be fully named, hopes attitudes to the virus will change.

“In general, UAE people are accepting of the disease, but there is a small category that does not accept it,” he said.

“My health is excellent and my immune system is normal.

“HIV is rated as a chronic disease and not a dangerous disease, so I have become very optimistic.”

One of the biggest hurdles facing health authorities is the effective recording of HIV data.

Adnan is another Emirati with the virus.

He contracted HIV from a sexual assault and has been treated in Dubai since his diagnosis at Rashid Hospital.

Adnan faced some hostility, then acceptance, when telling his family and friends he is HIV positive.

“I am fortunate to have a very strong support system in my family and friends, even though some of my relationships were fractured,” he said.

“I was not able to obtain any information about access to treatment online.

“Articles that I found did not address access to treatment, rather instilled a sense of fear which compelled me to travel abroad to seek treatment.”

He was put forward to a specialist at a UAE hospital who was well informed about the condition and treatment.

He said access to a counsellor or psychologist, which the government provides, is crucial.

“The doctor who greeted me was very understanding and gave my mother and I a sense of reassurance everything was going to be alright,” said Adnan, who will be on antiretroviral drugs for life, paid for by his health insurance cover.

School students pose for a photograph as they stand in the shape of a ribbon as part of an awareness event on the eve of the 'World AIDS Day' in Amritsar on November 30, 2019. / AFP / NARINDER NANU

“There is more understanding of HIV now in the government, but not in society,” he said.

“There needs to be a dialogue on a public platform about the subject so people are no longer living in fear of being diagnosed positive, stigmatised or quarantined, which is not the case anymore."

“Mental health [support] is of the utmost importance as it can save them falling into the dark cycle of addiction and reckless behaviour that got me to where I am today," he said.

Since 2010, Aids-related deaths have fallen globally by 33 per cent, to 770,000 in 2018.

Deaths are in decline due to better access to treatment, but there are exceptions.

In eastern Europe and central Asia, Aids-related deaths have risen by 5 per cent and in Mena by 9 per cent since 2010.

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The UAE is among the countries of low prevalence and the National HIV/Aids prevention programme is working to reach the global targets of 0 deaths from HIV/Aids

The report revealed less than half had access to important HIV prevention services, suggesting many are still marginalised.

In the UAE, the health ministry said treatment is fully funded for those with the virus, and that it is working towards having zero new cases and zero deaths.

“The Ministry of Health and Prevention is supporting a universal health access to all preventive, clinical and management services for people living with HIV or Aids,” a spokesman said.

“Provision is made for counselling for the patients and their families.

“The UAE is among the countries of low prevalence and the National HIV/Aids prevention programme is working to reach the global targets of 0 cases and 0 deaths from HIV/Aids.”

Another Emirati living with HIV is Tarek, who contracted the virus via a sexual relationship.

He was diagnosed at Rashidiya medical centre and transferred to Dubai Hospital to begin his treatment.

“The shock affected me greatly,” he said.

“I felt depressed, sad, and isolated from everyone.

“In our culture, we have not been educated enough about HIV and Aids.

“Some people do not accept those like me who are infected, but they do not understand the virus.

This undated photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a scanning electron micrograph of multiple round bumps of the HIV-1 virus on a cell surface. In a report released on Monday, July 24, 2017, researchers said a South African girl born with the AIDS virus has kept her infection suppressed for 8 1/2 years after stopping anti-HIV medicines _ more evidence that early treatment can occasionally cause a long remission that, if it lasts, would be a form of cure. (Cynthia Goldsmith/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP)

"They express fear and worry that it is contagious, but medicine is so developed now.”

For HIV carriers like Bu, Adnan and Tarek there is hope for the future a cure may be found.

In March, an HIV-positive man in Britain became the second adult to be cleared of Aids following a bone marrow transplant.

It has given hope to the 37 million or so people living with HIV in 2019.

“I have been hurt by my friends to whom I confided my hardship and then stayed away from me,” said Tarek, whose father disowned him due to concerns over the virus.

“I wish a final cure would be available and the virus be wiped out.

“If I could go back, I would not make the mistake I did.”

HIV on the rise in the region

A 2019 United Nations special analysis on Aids reveals 37 per cent of new HIV infections in the Mena region are from people injecting drugs.

New HIV infections have also risen by 29 per cent in western Europe and Asia, and by 7 per cent in Latin America, but declined elsewhere.

Egypt has shown the highest increase in recorded cases of HIV since 2010, up by 196 per cent.

Access to HIV testing, treatment and care in the region is well below the global average.  

Few statistics have been published on the number of cases in the UAE, although a UNAIDS report said 1.5 per cent of the prison population has the virus.

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