"In the Middle East and North Africa, the HIV epidemic has been on the rise for the past decade," Aleksandar Sasha Bodiroza, HIV/AIDS adviser at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Wednesday, December 7.
"The number of people needing treatment in the region has spiked from approximately 45,000 in 2001 to nearly 160,000 in 2010," Bodiroza told AFP.
"This has put the Middle East and North Africa among the top two regions globally with the fastest growing HIV epidemic."
The warning numbers were issued in a recent UN report which put estimates of people living with the HIV virus between 350,000 and 570,000 in the region home to a population estimated at more the 367 million.
One study, published recently on the open-access Public Library of Science, put infection rates among men who have sex with men at 5.7 percent in Egypt's capital Cairo -- and at 9.3 percent in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
With little reliable data on the region, the Arab world has been slow to catch up with the epidemic affected by a diminishing public awareness, government response and access to adequate medical services.
These elements cooperated to result in increasing HIV contraction rates and AIDS-related deaths.
The global numbers, however, were more promising.
A United Nations report released this month said the number of people becoming infected with HIV has slowed worldwide, with AIDS-related deaths also on the decline as access to treatment becomes more widespread.
The AIDS virus infected an estimated 33 million people globally and has killed 25 million since it was identified in the 1980s.
It destroys immune cells and exposes the body to opportunistic disease.
Estimates show that there are 33.2 million people infected with the HIV virus around the world, two-thirds of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.
A sharp lack of awareness on the deadly epidemic was casting its shadows on the region with shame and stigma haunting infected people.
"If I were to sum it up in one word, I would say my life is one big secret," said the 29-year-old man in Beirut, who has known he is HIV-positive for three years.
"While I came out to my family a long time ago, this is something I have not shared with them. I could never burden them with that."
Infection is typically concentrated among high-risk groups, including injecting drug users, men who have sex with men.
"Life for someone carrying the HIV virus is very difficult... they suffer an inability to talk about the disease freely with people who are close to them, and we have cases where individuals were kicked out of the family," said Brigitte Khoury, clinical psychologist at the American University of Beirut Medical Centre.
"So while some families do offer support, it's mainly a life of secrecy, deception and living in fear of the worst."
That fear, experts say, is often what keeps HIV-positive individuals from seeking treatment.
"Stigma and discrimination are among the primary reasons that people living with HIV or key populations at higher risk of HIV infection do not have access to essential HIV services," Bodiroza said.
"These two factors also limit the ability of governments and civil society to provide services."
Other experts say governments were the main party to blame for the rising epidemic in the region.
"The common thread that links all countries in the region is the impact of stigma and discrimination, which are (among) the primary reasons that people living with HIV or at-risk populations do not have access to essential services," said Bodiroza.
"Without strong leadership, it is unlikely that these issues will be fully or properly addressed."
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net