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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 June, 2004, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Tackling Iran's heroin habit
By Sam Bagnall
Series producer, World Weddings

Dr Arash Alaei with a heroin addict in Tehran
Dr Arash Alaei tries to help heroin addicts on the streets

Iran has the highest proportion of heroin addicts in the world and a growing Aids problem.

In a country where discussing sex, drugs and Aids is taboo, two doctors tackle the stigma and help those who are suffering.

Maryam is just 21, from a small town outside Kermanshah in north western Iran.

Mohammad and the Matchmaker
Wednesday, 16 June, 2004
2200 BST on BBC Two

Since contracting HIV from her husband - a heroin addict who recently died - her world has fallen apart.

"It was really difficult for me. I went through so many miseries and after everything I got infected with HIV. I never had any joy in my marriage and now I have this illness.

"It was not my fault. It was his fault, my husband. He had the pleasure and the sin, and I didn't know anything about it."

Maryam's chances of finding another husband to care for her and her young daughter seem slim.

That is where Dr Kamiar Alaei comes in.

The number of heroin addicts increased after the revolution... we never had that many junkies before
Mohammad, former drug addict

Along with his brother Arash, who is also a doctor, Kamiar is on a personal mission to help the growing number of HIV/Aids patients in Iran.

The doctors have become counsellors and confidants to patients like Maryam, in a country where discussing sexually transmitted diseases is still taboo.

They have taken their roles to extremes and have even begun attempting to match-make HIV positive patients.

Street junkies

Arash Alaei says: "When you are HIV positive, it is incredibly difficult to meet a new partner. Imagine what it is like to try to tell someone that you have feelings for, that you are infected.

"It tends to stop you even getting close to people. I see this kind of pastoral care as every bit as important as the medical side."

Dr Arash Alaei (left) and Dr Kamiar Alaei (centre) with Maryam
Doctors Arah and Kamiar Alaei tried to find Maryam a husband

Dr Arash Alaei runs a clinic in Tehran, where he caters for the growing number of drug addicts and prostitutes who are infected with the virus.

It takes him to parts of Iran which are never seen in the west, where junkies sprawl on streets littered with needles.

Much of his work is done for free, and it has been recognised in the US, Thailand and throughout Europe. Institutions such as the World Health Organisation and UNAids have praised him for bringing to light a largely hidden problem.

The Alaei brothers, both in their mid-30s, come from a well-off family in Kermanshah. They are acutely conscious that their privileged upbringing, and training as doctors, brings social responsibilities.

"We doctors take the Hippocratic oath when we graduate, to serve people. We have to share what we have with others in society," says Arash.

He continues: "I'm not saying that we have to suffer and crucify ourselves for people. But if we have enough to lead a normal life we should share the extras with people who have less."

We face a huge potential HIV problem in Iran... it is not easy to talk about sexual matters in what is still a very traditional country
Dr Kamiar Alaei

There are plenty of people who need their help. Iran has the highest proportion of hard drug users of any country in the world.

Cheap opium and increasingly refined heroin flood over the border from Afghanistan.

Some estimates put the number of users as high as three million - one in 20 of the population.

In such a rigid society in which public dancing and music were - until recently - illegal, drugs have become a common form of recreation.

Junkies are a common site on the streets of the major cities. Prostitution, too, is commonplace.

These are not images commonly associated with the world's largest Islamic republic.

Young addicts

Mohammed, one of Arash's patients, says: "The number of heroin addicts increased after the revolution. We never had many junkies before that.

Dr Arash Alaei (left) and Mohammad (right)
Dr Alaei took Mohammad to his home town to meet Maryam

"It's just because of boredom. Young people don't have anything to do for fun and that is why they get into drugs. In a way they just want to fill their empty lives with drugs."

Mohammad has been clean of heroin for three years. He attends regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings and is trying to build a new life, living with HIV.

Kamiar says: "We face a huge potential HIV problem in Iran, and in order to start to confront it, we need to talk about the root causes. It is not easy to talk about sexual matters in what is still a very traditional country."

"Many people are still afraid to talk about it. Some people with HIV are ostracised and stigmatised, and they are often very isolated."

The Iranian government has a surprisingly advanced medical programme to tackle HIV/Aids, but the problem is public awareness. Living in a traditional Muslim culture, people are reluctant to discuss a disease that is transmitted by sexual contact or sharing needles.

World Weddings: Mohammad and the Matchmaker was broadcast in the UK on Wednesday, 16 June, 2004, at 2200 BST on BBC Two.

'Nothing matters when you are dying'
03 Dec 03 |  Middle East
Iran's drug users face Aids risk
09 Dec 03 |  Middle East
Iran's battle with heroin
07 Jun 02 |  Middle East

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