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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 December 2007, 01:02 GMT
Egypt fights ignorance on HIV/Aids
By Alasdair Soussi
Cairo, Egypt

In a small room, in a modest, but well-maintained building in Central Cairo, a phone rings. The caller - a woman - is worried. She suspects that her husband has been having sex with someone else. She is concerned that she might be at risk of catching HIV.

Taking blood at an Aids clinic in Cairo
HIV/Aids is still seen as a "foreign" problem by many Egyptians
"Where can I go to get tested?" she wants to know. "Will my anonymity be guaranteed?"

Such a call, which lasts no more than five minutes, is not unusual on Egypt's national HIV/Aids hotline.

Supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), the hotline has been providing information on the transmission and prevention of this deadly virus for more than 10 years to callers in Egypt and other countries in the region.

The disease, which has claimed millions of lives throughout the world, is still widely seen as a "foreign" problem, nothing for ordinary Egyptians to worry about.

And on the face of it, available statistics make for reassuring reading.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids), the prevalence of HIV in Egypt in 2005 was estimated at some 17,000 in a population of more than 70 million.

Worrying trends

But a number of factors - including an overwhelmingly youthful population, a lack of basic information about the virus and an increase in the number of young people engaging in premarital sex - have prompted concerns that the situation could quickly worsen unless direct measures are taken.

"Our callers phone us with a varied concerns," says Dr Ahmad Bahaa, the hotline manager, whose centre receives some 15 to 20 calls a day.

Between 2004 and 2005, the estimated number of HIV cases in Egypt rose from 12,000 to 17,000 in 2004-2005
12% of reported HIV cases among 15-24 age group
30% of married women in remote rural areas of Egypt have sexually transmitted infections
20% of Egypt's population are infected with Hepatitis C, which is transmitted in the same way as HIV
In Middle East and North Africa 460,000 have HIV. 68,000 people were newly infected in 2006 alone
Source: Unicef

"We receive a lot of calls about modes of transmission, about symptoms, though, even now, we still get a lot of callers who hang up because they are afraid that we might be tracking them and their numbers, which, we are not, of course."

Despite world-wide attention on the issue, ignorance about HIV/Aids transmission is still a major problem in Egypt, says Nadia Sadiq Ahmad, a trained counsellor working at the hotline.

"We have had people phoning us, because they have been kissing, for example, and they're worried that may be at risk of contracting the virus in this way.

"Others have asked whether it is possible to get HIV through water; one caller told of how she was out in the balcony and a splash of water hit her hand from above her. She was worried that if the water had touched someone with the disease first, then it could be transmitted to her."

Targeting the young

The presence of Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centres in Egypt, has taken the fight to increase HIV/Aids awareness to the next level.

The hope is that the promise of anonymity will encourage those most at risk of contracting the disease - such as commercial sex workers, intravenous drug users and gay men - to go for testing.

Counselling at an Aids clinic in Cairo
Aids counsellors offer absolute anonymity to patients

"The testing centres work through a process of guaranteeing confidentiality," says Dr Tariq Bahaa, a doctor and counsellor at one of the centres in Cairo.

"The person, who could just be coming for counselling, or counselling and testing, chooses a code name, and then we give him/her a code number. No personal details are asked for and nothing about them is divulged to anyone outside the centre. But everything about their needs and their behaviour is explored before any testing is done."

Meanwhile, HIV/Aids peer education programmes have been introduced by a range of NGOs dealing with young people.

Particular attention is given to those most at risk, such as Egypt's estimated one million street children.

At a reception centre run by the Cairo-based Hope Village Society, HIV and the risks associated with the disease are a regular topic of discussion with groups of street children.

"HIV is a very dangerous disease, so because of the training, I'm more aware of risks, and it's influenced my behaviour," says 15-year old Emad. "I look after myself better now when I'm on the streets than I ever did before."

Despite the presence of other positive factors, such as the recent founding of the Egyptian NGO Network Against Aids (ENNAA), and growing media coverage of the epidemic and programmes addressing it, significant challenges remain.

"There are many HIV/Aids related issues that we have not yet tackled, but intend to tackle over the coming years," says Dr Wessam El Beih, Unicef's officer for HIV/Aids.

"One thing that we will be engaged in very soon, is providing care and support for people living with HIV/Aids. This would be in terms of trying to give these people a voice, and help them live positively with HIV. And through this, we would be able to make real efforts at combating the stigma attached to the virus, which is still something that is quite prevalent in Egypt."

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