A depressing new report published last week in the journal PLoS Medicine reveals that because of the high numbers of men having sex with other men in secret, AIDS is on the rise in many Muslim countries. Between 2 and 3 percent of men in the region have sex with other men, but condom use is rare and many men, seeking to keep their affairs a secret, put their wives at risk of infection.
The statistics on HIV infection may also be inaccurate, and, as the researchers observe, “very little is known about HIV transmission patterns among MSM in [the Middle East and North Africa].” This is because stigma and the very real fear of being imprisoned or executed keep men from speaking out about their affairs, or seeking treatment. According to the report, men did not fully grasp the risks of unprotected sex.
Several populations were especially at risk for HIV transmission: truck drivers, street children and prisoners. Prostitution is increasingly common, although male prostitutes are also married, to preserve a facade of “normality.” Men tended not to use condoms, not because they had not heard of them, but because they were inaccessible or uncomfortable.
Disturbingly, many men believed that their chances of contracting HIV were lower if they engaged in anal sex, and with the exception of Tunisia and Lebanon, significant numbers of men having sex with men were unaware of the risks of HIV.
The report took on a tone of urgency in its concluding sections. ”The window of opportunity for prevention of further HIV transmission among [men having sex with men] is narrowing,” the researchers wrote, “and prompt action and robust interventions are needed. Interventions at this stage need to be prioritized for the most vulnerable…subpopulations such as [male sex workers] and transgender people who…appear to be at the highest risk of HIV exposure.”
Education, increased access to contraceptives and measures to lessen the stigma surrounding HIV are all needed to save more men in Muslim countries from contracting HIV. The New York Times reports that some countries have adopted compulsory HIV tests for work visas and marriage licenses, but far more drastic steps need to be taken.
Photo from John Rawlinson via flickr.