Monday, June 05, 2006

25 Year of AIDS; Lebanon Learning Lessons from Progressive Iran

Today officially marks the 25th anniversary of the first report of AIDS. On June 5, 1981, the American Centers for Disease Control announced that five young gay men were suffering from a strangely concurrent pneumonia. The then-unknown disease was called Gay-Related Immune Defeciency for over a year, until it was realized that homosexuality does not cause the disease, and it was renamed Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome.

Since its outbreak, AIDS has already killed more than the bubonic plague and is approaching the World War II death toll of 62,000,000. It will probably surpass it within the next ten years.

Because gay people had the first-known cases of AIDS, and the gay community has suffered immensely from the disease, homosexuality has often been blamed for causing AIDS. which is ludicrous. Thus, in addition to having to fight an epidemic within our community, which is already last on the list of most governments' priorities, gay people are actually politically attacked for having the disease. How many times have I heard that AIDS is a punishment from God?

When I hear that AIDS is a divine judgment because God hates gay people for being gay, I always ask, "Does God hate impoverished Africans for being African?", "If a woman is raped and get AIDS, does God give it to her as punishment?", "If a baby is born with AIDS, could it be called preemptive punishment?". The answer to all of these questions has got to be no. People say God hates gay people because they hate gay people. They are looking for real-world events to justify their prejudices. But there is nothing to show that AIDS has been divinely inspired.

Anyway, I digress. I'd rather not talk about the horrors that AIDS has caused in the world, but rather the hope for the eradication of the disease in the future. Much of that hope in the Middle East is being spread by our Persian neighbors to the East, in Iran. In April, the Kansas City Star published an article about AIDS work in Iran. Quotes:

It still doles out floggings to Iranians caught with alcohol, but it gives clean
syringes and methadone treatment to heroin addicts. Health workers pass out
condoms to prostitutes. Government clinics in every region offer free HIV
testing, counseling and treatment. A state-backed magazine just began a monthly
column that profiles HIV-positive Iranians, and last year the postal service
unveiled an AIDS awareness stamp.

One of Iran’s most acclaimed advances comes from its prisons, where hundreds of
drug-addicted inmates sometimes share the same makeshift syringe to inject
heroin smuggled in. In a startling acknowledgment of sex and drugs even in its
most closely guarded quarters, the Tehran administration has made condoms and
needles available in detention centers across the country.

Amazing. Just amazing. And it's not what most people would expect from Iran. But, in a way, it makes sense. In non-democratic regimes, where the populace has little room to question the actions of its goverment, change can be amore expedient. If Fidel Castro decided that every Cuban would be required to dress like Carmen Miranda, within a week Chiquita would be a Fortune 500 country. The leaders of Iran simply decided, quite rationally, that AIDS was not going to go away through ignorance and/or punishment, but by intervening to prevent the factors that tribute to infection, i.e. drug use and unprotected sex.

This progressive stance on AIDS is now being exported to Lebanon, which is much more liberal than Iran, but far behind it. So far, due to social sexual taboos, HIV/AIDS has barely been discussed in Lebanon, which, pessimistically, could lead to an outbreak. In an article by the Norwegian Red Cross, it is mentioned that in 2003, the Lebanese government officially reported 745 cases of HIV in Lebanon. The UN, however, claimed that there were really about 2,800 cases, with a range from 700-4,100. The article points out the good work that the Lebanese Red Cross Youth are doing to curb the spread of HIV. Sadly, almost all the work to fight AIDS in Lebanon is done by non-govermental organizations (including Helem), and not by the government, which doesn't really want to acknowledge the problem. Not to say that the Lebanese Ministry of Health's AIDS Program is usless; but it would be nice if they were a bit more proactive and had some future events planned.

Unfortunately, in Lebanon, unlike in Iran, a main factor for HIV transmission may end up being gay sex, according to the International AIDS Alliance's report "Rapid situation analysis of men who have sex with men in the Maghreb and Lebanon". Among the factors that could indicate a spread of the epidemic in the region:

The social and religious taboos linked to the condemnation of sex between men
and the risk of discrimination against MSM lead them to conceal their sexual
orientation and/or practices, particularly from health professionals. This makes
the screening and treatment of HIV and other STIs difficult. Because of this,
there are few prevention and care programmes in the region specifically for MSM.

What was ACT-UP's slogan? Oh, yes: "Silence = Death". It always proves to be true. The report goes on to say that "concentrating prevention efforts on people whose sexual practices can involve a considerable risk of HIV transmission – such as MSM (men who have sex with men) enables not only these people to be protected but also the spread of the epidemic to be controlled at national level." It seems so easy.

The report is extremely worth the read. Not only does it give amazing ideas on how to combat AIDS, it gives rather corny "categories" of gay men, and can be quite humorous at times - it calls religious zealots "beardies". It talks a lot about whether or not to come out of the closet, never completely endorsing either. The message at the end is clear, however - if you hate yourself for being gay, you won't take care of yourself.

A very good article on the stigmatism that affects people afflicted with AIDS in Lebanon was published by IRINNews, an offshoot of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affars. It outlines Lebanese society's rejection of HIV+ people, HIV+ people's self-rejection, whe widespread belief that HIV is a punishment from God, and how the medical system is unequipped and unwlilling to deal with the disease.

There has to be hope. We have to work harder. In today's time, there is no excuse for having sex without a condom. And the ties between gay discrimination, gay self-esteem, and the spread of HIV are so obvious. Protecting gay men from HIV protects everyone. 25 years is enough. If Iran can do it, so can we.


Blogger linalone said...

Really unexpected from Iran...

June 07, 2006 1:13 AM  

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