New law will ban discrimination against HIV/Aids sufferers

A law to allow anonymous tests and ban discrimination against UAE nationals with the condition is a step closer.

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ABU DHABI // A proposal to allow anonymous HIV/Aids tests and ban discrimination against UAE nationals with the condition is another step closer to becoming law. The legislation, drafted by the National Aids Committee, aims to eliminate discrimination and reduce the stigma surrounding the disease. It has been approved by the Council of Ministers, and now awaits final approval from Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Dr Nada al Marzouqi, head of the National Aids Programme, said it was a huge step towards "integrating HIV patients into society". As well as improving rights to education, employment, care and treatment, the law will also legalise and regulate voluntary testing and counselling clinics, which enable people to be tested anonymously. "Previously there were no laws stopping employers discriminating against people with HIV," Dr al Mazrouqi said. "This will now change so they will not be allowed to do it. We really want to reduce stigma and discrimination but we need laws, as well as education, to do this. Now we have a firm reference point, everyone is aware of their rights."

Dr al Marzouqi said she was aware of a number of cases where an employer had rejected a job applicant because they were HIV positive. This sort of behaviour, she said, hampers efforts to reduce prejudice. All migrants moving to the UAE must be tested for HIV - and other diseases - before they are granted a residency visa. Those who test positive are detained until they can be deported. UAE nationals also need to be screened before they start a new job. In addition, everyone who has surgery at a government hospital, gets married or has tuberculosis is screened. Emiratis are entitled to treatment in the UAE but according to a recent UN report less than a fifth choose to stay, opting instead for treatment abroad. This is largely put down to the stigma attached to the disease. The proposed new law comes just days before Dubai is due to host a delegation from UNAIDS, the United Nations' Joint Programme on HIV/Aids. The meeting next week will discuss what the UN has called an epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa regions: the number of people living with HIV rose from an estimated 200,000 in 2001 to 320,000 in 2008. The number of UAE nationals with HIV/Aids was 636 last year, of whom 476 were men. Figures on the number of expatriates with HIV are scarce. In 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, Dubai deported or denied entry to 322 non-nationals because of their HIV status. The UAE lags behind some other Gulf countries in its treatment of the local population with HIV/Aids. The proposed law says it is "the right of every individual to check their HIV status through voluntary, confidential and free tests. Individuals and centres will not be obliged to disclose the identity of tested individuals". Voluntary testing clinics already exist elsewhere in the region. Saudi Arabia, for example, has opened 20 clinics in recent years. Two clinics, including one mobile centre, screened more than 2,300 people in 2008 and 2009, of whom 38 had HIV. A UN progress report this year on the UAE, which will form part of a global Aids epidemic report this year, praised a "scaling up" of available treatment, but said there was still a need for standardised care, treatment and support across "various clinical facilities and among the various emirates". It added that more specialised staff were needed. "There is still a lot of stigma and we have a lot of work to do and a lot of systems to change but the approval of the law is great," said Dr al Marzouqi. "The National Aids Committee will have more responsibility and more things to do, this is a very great thing and now we need more hard work." The UAE is one of only around 30 countries in the world that deport migrants with HIV. It also deports anyone with tuberculosis, hepatitis B or C, leprosy and syphilis. A senior official from the Dubai Health Authority said last week that the emirate was likely to stop deporting expatriates with tuberculosis, as the disease is relatively easy to treat and driving people "underground" risked increased infections.