Aids charity helps Saudi HIV victims shunned by society

A charity that supports victims' families is changing the way society in Saudi Arabia looks at sufferers, but is struggling to deal with the growing numbers.

JEDDAH // When Om Abdullah's family discovered she had become infected with HIV, the first person to abandon her was her mother.

She had contracted the virus from her husband, who died within a year of the HIV diagnosis. Left with five children and no job, the widow gradually became ostracised from her neighbours and family, including her mother. "This is what made me suffer the most, but I don't blame her. Maybe if she was educated then things would've been different," said the widow in her early 40s, who used a fake name to avoid further discrimination.

"She thought that she might get infected through the air just for being with me in the same room," she said. "My poor mum, she is too old to understand something new to our society like HIV." Thanks to the drugs and treatments that were not available for her husband, Om Abdullah has survived 10 years with the virus. But in that time, like the thousands of others carrying the virus inside the kingdom, she has struggled to be accepted in a society where the HIV and Aids problem was for years kept hidden.

Earlier this month, the ministry of health released figures that many believe now represent a more accurate picture of HIV infection rates in the kingdom. In Saudi Arabia, there were 15,213 HIV cases recorded between 1984 and 2010, according to the ministry of health. Most of the those infected were foreign workers but 4,019 were Saudis. Last year alone, there were 1,287 recorded cases, of which 481 were Saudis. The vast majority of those infected were male and, according to the ministry, 95 per cent of those infected contracted the virus through sexual intercourse.

The relative jump in the figures for 2009 came after more people carrying the virus were identified due to the introduction in 2008 of stricter health checks for foreign workers renewing their Iqama, a type of residence visa. It also became mandatory for all Saudis wishing to marry to undergo an HIV test. "Aids victims in Saudi Arabia are like any victims of the disease in other parts of the world, they always find it difficult to blend with the society," said Sanaa Filmban, a doctor and active member of the Saudi Charity Association for Aids Patients.

"Globally, difficulties that the patients face vary based on the culture, however, labelling and discrimination are the widespread difficulties that they face in the Arab world," Dr Filmban said. "People in Saudi Arabia need to stop discriminating against the HIV patients and they should know that mixing with them at the workplace or at home will not make them infected." Dr Filmban is trying through the Jeddah-based association, which supports more than 350 Saudi families affected by the disease, to change the way society looks at HIV sufferers.

For Ms Abdullah, trying to raise her two sons and three daughters in Jeddah while living with HIV has been a struggle. She lives on 2,800 riyals (Dh2,742) of welfare assistance that she gets from the state's General Organisation for Social Insurance, and the food and clothing she gets from the Saudi Charity Association for Aids Patients. "The money I took was always enough for me but now as you know things are getting more expensive and my kids are growing and their needs are growing with them," Ms Abdullah said.

"All what I want now is a stable job with a 3,000 riyal salary to pay for things that my children always wanted and I couldn't afford, and I also want to see the society accepting my children. "I don't want anything more than to see them happy and married." Ms Abdullah said her eldest son, Abdullah, 24, is ready to get married but she believes "everyone is refusing him just because of me". The widow said she has managed to survive because she started receiving medication 10 months after she discovered she had HIV in 2000 and during her husband's last days.

"The only thing that made me fight the disease and the society to accept me is my children," she said. "I always prayed to God to give me the strength and stay alive just to support them as they don't have anyone to take care of them after their father died, except me." After Ms Abdullah's husband became infected, her friends and family feared that she and her children would be infected. Her children are all HIV free.

"HIV can be transmitted in many ways but people here think that this disease is a punishment for committing a moral sin," she added. The Saudi Charity Association for Aids Patients has offered the widow emotional support to live with the illness. "They are taking good care of me and of many other families," she said. "They gave me the care that I needed from my own mother and I couldn't get." The association is getting financial support from local people and from the ministry of social affairs but the money is not enough to carry all of its programmes, said Fahad al Misifiri, the association's president.

"The number of the patients is on the rise and the budget is barely enough to support the old families," he said.