In a recent report, Medecins Sans Frontières, (a French-based non-governmental organizations which is dedicated to solving health issues across the globe) highlighted the very thorny issue of AIDS in Yemen, underscoring the need for a comprehensive and adequate national program.
MSF explained in its report that so far all its AIDS data collection pointed to one overwhelming common issues, the stigmatization of patients.
Because of the sexual nature of the disease (the AIDS virus is transmitted primarily via unprotected sexual intercourse, contaminated blood transfusions, hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding), HIV positive patients are often shun from society, considered as pariah.
While such a phenomena has been observed across the world, most countries have worked throughout the years, through campaigns and educational program to increase society's tolerance and understanding toward the disease, thus improving AIDS patients and HIV carriers' quality of life and access to health care.
However, because Yemen' social system and ethical compass is very much embedded in Islam, AIDS remains very much attached to immorality, something that society is having a hard time coming to grip with.
“The strong discrimination against people living with HIV results in poor access to health facilities ... people can be afraid of how they will be treated and, at times, their concerns are warranted,” said Sue Petrie, coordinator of MSF’s Sana’a HIV program. “Our aim is to work hand in hand with the National AIDS Program, supporting their activities and improving the situation for people living with HIV," she added.
Determined to help Yemeni AIDS and HIV positive patients, MSF is now looking to partner with local groups and organization, namely, AID Association and No Stigma Foundation to improve people's quality of life and access to care.
“These kinds of initiatives are helping to improve the situation for those most affected by HIV/AIDS,” says Petrie. “MSF wants to work with these associations [AID Association and No Stigma Foundation ] because our impression is that they are a committed group of people who want to raise the profile of issues for people living with HIV, and reduce stigma and discrimination. This is also one of the main objectives of our work here: to raise awareness of the disease, reduce stigma and discrimination, and improve access and acceptance. Ultimately, we want to improve the services provided to this patient group.”
When conducting its survey in Yemen, MSF discovered that the stigma attached to AIDS have ostracized entire segment of the population, forcing families to live on the outskirt of society, with no help or support.
Um Abdul Rahman, a 35-year old HIV positive patient recalled how her father ordered her to leave the family home after doctors established she had contracted the virus.
Um Abdul Rahman was diagnosed after her husband's passing.
Alone, she explained, "“Because I am a woman it has been really tough. When I found out I was HIV-positive, I had no means to support my daughters. If I had been a man, I could have found a job, any job.”
Another patient, Abdo Mohammed, a 35-year old, recalled how his wife, who he infected, was turned away from several hospitals when she went into labor. The couple had to hide their condition in order for doctors to admit Mohammed's wife.
“When the time came to give birth, we went to two hospitals and both refused to assist my wife ... The only solution was to take her to a third hospital and hide her HIV status.”
Dr. Abdul Fattah who works at Sana'a only HIV/AIDS treatment clinic at al-Gumhuri hospital told MSF that it was stigmatization and ostracism which prompted him to dedicate his life to finding the disease and offer patients the best level of care possible in a safe and understanding environment.
"When I finished my medical studies, I heard there was this clinic, so I came and started working here. Fighting discrimination is a major challenge. At first, people with HIV were being refused admission to hospital. After a lot of pressure and training of medical staff, the situation has improved a bit. Yet there are still many doctors, respected doctors, who panic at the mere mention of HIV.”
There are only sic center in the whole of Yemen, including Dr Fattah's clinic which provides people with testing facilities and counseling.
Because Yemen has now ran out of HIV diagnosis kit, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria announced it will finance Yemen until 2014.
“For care and treatment, we have enough financial support, but for other activities, especially awareness-raising, we need more,” explained Dr Abdul-Hameed, Director of the National AIDS Program in Yemen. “We lack resources for counseling and diagnosis, and particularly for the prevention of HIV transmission from mother to child, and these are services that we need to scale up.”