BEIRUT: Lebanon has roughly 3,750 patients with HIV/AIDS, new figures released Monday by health officials show, in a rare detailed glimpse into the disease in the country.
“As we support those who live with HIV and who need treatment, we consider them a fundamental element in our success and their responsiveness to treatment is evidence of this success,” said Mustafa al-Naqib, the head of the Health Ministry’s National Program to Combat HIV, at a news conference marking World AIDS day.
Naqib said the projected figures for the actual number of HIV/AIDS patients in Lebanon was around 3,750, with many deciding not to report the illness due to fears of stigma and discrimination.
AIDS is stigmatized in Arab countries due to sensitivities about extra-marital relations. Also, many of those who contract the disease in Lebanon do so in the course of homosexual relations, which are also taboo.
For instance, virtually no AIDS-linked deaths have been reported in Lebanon despite the fact that over 1,700 individuals have reported being infected with HIV since the government began tracking the illness in the 1990s.
Medical advances have allowed the use of “antiretroviral” drug cocktails to manage the spread of HIV in the body, making a lethal illness into a chronic, manageable one and limiting infections.
“People with HIV can live healthy, productive lives,” said Gabriele Riedner, the World Health Organization’s deputy representative for Lebanon, who is involved in HIV/AIDS work in the region.
There were 109 new reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Lebanon in 2014, bringing the total number of cases recorded by the Health Ministry since it began tracking its prevalence to 1,780.
Naqib offered a fascinating glimpse into the disease in Lebanon. The country’s patients are hugely skewed compared to the rest of the world in terms of gender, with nearly 92 percent of all recorded patients in the country being men. Experts said the low infection rates among women could help limit the spread of the disease since it means fewer children are born with it.
The largest age group with the illness is the 15- to 29-year-olds with 26.1 percent, followed by those aged 30 to 49 at 25.7 percent.
Not all patients who are recorded as having the illness have reported how they contracted it, leading to gaps in the data. For instance, nearly 70 percent say they contracted the illness through sexual intercourse, while 30 percent declined to say.
In addition, just over one-third of patients report contracting the illness after homosexual intercourse, followed by 23 percent heterosexual. But nearly 39 percent did not specify the type of sexual activity they engaged in, which Naqib also said is likely due to the stigma attached to homosexuality in Lebanon.
In Lebanon, the Health Ministry began covering expense of treatments for patients in 1997, and now provides an antiretroviral cocktail of three drugs to patients as well as offering free tests to identify infections.
The ministry has also opened a medical distribution center in Karantina that is providing drug treatments to patients as well as special IDs for patients to protect their privacy.
New AIDS cases in Lebanon have plateaued for years. In 2009, there were 81 new cases, 93 in 2010, 109 in 2011, 97 in 2012 and 119 in 2013.
Moreover, Health Ministry treatment centers have so far provided medication to 764 patients with HIV, with 114 of those taking up new medication in 2014. Officials said they’ve also trained 550 health workers and opened 70 new centers with voluntary testing facilities for individuals to test if they have HIV.
The main challenge facing AIDS patients, in addition to stigma and discrimination, is that many find themselves unable to pay for regular follow-up tests that are not covered by the ministry like the CD4 test that measures how advanced the illness is in an individual.
But health officials were generally upbeat about efforts to treat the disease in Lebanon, which is one of the few countries in the region where the government is required by law to offer treatment to all residents who are AIDS patients rather than deporting foreigners who carry the disease.
The treatment was extended to Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon registered with UNRWA, and lately to Syrian refugees fleeing the crisis at home through a grant by the WHO.
The officials said AIDS treatment efforts available in Lebanon allow patients to live a normal and productive life, with antiretroviral drugs that are easier and cheaper to obtain, improving the health of patients and allowing their immune systems to survive infections while reducing the presence of the virus in the body.
“We can say confidently that AIDS patients in Lebanon are receiving the appropriate treatment,” said Abdul Rahman al-Barzi, an expert on infectious diseases and the representative of civil society at the news conference.
Imad Kanawati, a specialist with Dar al-Fatwa who attended the news conference, said religious leaders had a role to encourage prevention and family values that could limit extramarital affairs and, through that, the risk of spreading AIDS.
But he said religious communities should show compassion to AIDS victims and not ostracize them from the community.