Feature story

Placing families at the heart of the AIDS response in the Middle East and North Africa

04 November 2011

Participants at the Qatar Symposium. Doha, Qatar. 02 November 2011

Families need to be empowered to provide the first line of protection against stigma, raise HIV awareness and decrease new HIV infections in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries according to the participants of the recently concluded Qatar Symposium.

The event, which took place 1 – 2 November 2011 in Doha, was organized by the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and development (DIIFSD), UNAIDS and UNICEF to examine the linkages between family, Millennium Development Goals and AIDS in the Middle East.

“We need to address the AIDS epidemic with responsibility and courage,” said Dr Sima Bahous, Assisstant Secretary General of the League of Arab States. “HIV hinders the social, economical and developmental progress of the region and has a negative impact on the health of the family.” 

The Qatar Symposium focused on how investments in children, young people and women can have a real impact in reducing the HIV prevalence in the region. MENA is one of the few regions in the world where the AIDS epidemic is still on the rise with an HIV prevalence that has doubled in the last 10 years and where AIDS related deaths have tripled.

Topics discussed at the conference included the goal to eliminate new HIV infections among children, the need for HIV prevention programs that focus on children and young people most at risk of infection as well as how family affects their involvement in potentially risky behaviour.

According to Shahida Azfar, UNICEF Regional Director in MENA, a significant number of women, young people and children are affected by HIV in the region despite the gains made during the past decade. In 2009, more than 6 400 children aged 0-14 years old in MENA countries became infected with HIV. The number of children living with HIV (aged 0-14 years old) rose to 21 000 and in the same year, young people (aged 15-24) living with HIV were around 94 000.

UNAIDS Regional Director for MENA Hind Khatib accepting an award from Lt. General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, Commander in Chief, Dubai Police on behalf of UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé.

Participants agreed that families can be highly protective as they offer a dependable means of HIV prevention education and the clout to keep children in school, on track and out of risk. Family support can improve adherence to HIV treatment, provide sustaining care and offer the first line of protection against stigma and isolation.

“Countries in MENA need to help families mobilize against AIDS through education, outreach and helping to rise up against the stigma associated with AIDS,” said Dr Faleh Mohammed Hussain Ali, Assistant Secretary General for Policy Affairs at the Supreme Council of Health in Qatar.

In addition to placing the family at the heart of the AIDS response, participants also called for enhanced political commitment and better engagement of civil society including the media.

UNAIDS Regional Director for MENA Hind Khatib stressed that achieving UNAIDS vision of zero discrimination, zero new HIV infections, and zero AIDS related deaths will require more than simply accepting the validity of current political, social and scientific approaches. “It will require a deliberate creative act of promoting family ties and cultural values, confronting social norms and re-examining laws that detract people of their dignity and respect.”