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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 February 2005, 02:34 GMT
Aids threat grows for Arab women
By Dale Gavlak
BBC News, Amman

Woman in Muslim dress
Common ways of preventing infection are unavailable to many
A conference on HIV/Aids among women and girls in the Middle East and north Africa has heard a call for more to be done to help this vulnerable group.

Although incidence rates are still low compared to the rest of the world, health practitioners warned that this would not be the case in a year's time.

Already the HIV/Aids rate among women in the region has increased.

The three-day conference in Amman, the first of its kind, is being sponsored by UNAids and the government of Jordan.

This is the right time and we have to say that our women are vulnerable
Dr Hind Khattab
Egyptian health specialist

UN officials estimate that there are more than half a million men and women living with HIV in the region.

The UNAids Associate Director, Dr Suman Mehta, warned that the prognosis for women and girls in the region infected with the disease was not good:

"[That] not a single one is coming forward to say 'I am HIV-positive' says something about the fear, the scare, the discrimination and stigma attached to Aids."

Dr Mehta told the participants that infections among women and girls were on the rise, although it was impossible to give accurate figures.

Throughout the Middle East, more than 90,000 new cases among men and women were reported last year alone - and these are just the reported numbers.

Silent killer

Dr Mehta said HIV was a silent killer in the Middle East.

The reasons for this are many, including

  • Girls and women tend to have lower status than men in society and are vulnerable to coerced sex and domestic violence

  • Common prevention practices are insufficient because many women have little ability to negotiate methods of protection.

Dr Hind Khattab, a public health specialist from Egypt, said it was time to move from concern to action to combat HIV/Aids before it claimed more lives.

She said that might mean shaking up popular misconceptions about sexuality in this traditional, conservative area of the world:

"The most important thing to do is not to wait until we are in a dangerous situation and then do something.

"This is the right time and we have to say that our women are vulnerable - not only those who [behave riskily] or those who are spouses of men who have risk behaviour, but we are in a situation where many of our countries are [at] war or are being attacked and the women are really at risk."

Dr Khattab and other health workers are calling on governments to provide proper sex education and HIV-prevention training in schools, and to integrate HIV-Aids counselling and treatment within more general health care and education.

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