mother of six flinched when asked if she has told her
children that she and her husband were diagnosed with AIDS
four months ago. She never will, she said. "Can you
imagine what their reaction will be? We'll be treated
like pariahs," said Umm Muhammad, a Jiddah, Saudi
Arabia, resident who declined to use her full name to
protect her privacy.
Saudi Arabia's government has become more open
about AIDS in recent years, publishing statistics
about the number of infected Saudis, providing them
with free medical care, and urging compassion. But in this
deeply conservative kingdom, strong social stigma is still
attached to the disease, which most people link,
correctly or not, to acts forbidden by their religion
and sometimes punishable by death: homosexuality,
premarital sex, and adultery.
That complicates the work of health workers and
activists who advocate spreading full awareness about
protective measures. They ask, How can an activist
educate people about safe sex in a culture that demands men
and women abstain from premarital sex?
The dilemma is that many Saudis, mostly men, do
have sex before marriage as well as extramarital
affairs, especially while on trips to Arab or Western
countries, activists say. Some contract the disease and then
infect their wives.
According to Health Ministry statistics, 78% of
HIV/AIDS cases in the kingdom are a result of sexual
contact. "If we were to say 'Use condoms' to
everybody, it's like giving them carte blanche to go out and
have sex," said Rami al-Harithi, a 30-year-old activist who
contracted HIV during a blood transfusion when he was 8.
Al-Harithi, from the holy city of Mecca, is one
of the first Saudi HIV-positive patients to come out
in the open and says people are sympathetic to him
because of how he contracted the disease. Later this
week, he says, he will speak frankly at a seminar to mark
World AIDS Day that male high school students have
been invited to attend.
"I will tell them, 'You should abstain from sex.
But if you travel and cannot hold yourself, there's
something called a condom that you should use,'" said
al-Harithi. "I'm sure some people will be upset at
this kind of language, but I don't care," he added. "My
aim is to protect people."
But many Saudis disagree with al-Harithi, saying
recommendations for safe sex among married couples,
such as one posted on the Health Ministry site, are as
far as activists or the government should go.The site says:
"There are simple and effective ways to protect against the
disease and the most important one, which is more
important than any vaccine that may one day be
discovered, is clinging to moral, social, and religious
values that ban dangerous sexual conduct and that limit sex
Of the 10,120 people who have tested positive
for HIV in the kingdom since the first case was
identified in 1984, 2,316 were Saudis, according to
figures released by the Health Ministry in August, the
Arab News reported. That figure is up from 7,804
in 2005, the paper quoted Tarek Madani, adviser to the
health minister and consultant for contagious
diseases, as saying.
Almost 80% of AIDS cases in the kingdom are in
the age group, 15-49, while the percentage
among children is 6.4%, the report said. The
government sponsors public awareness campaigns, such as one
it plans for this week to mark Friday's World AIDS Day
that includes lectures, 500,000 phone text messages,
billboards, and other activities under the slogan
"Together for the sake of children. Together against AIDS."
The government also treats Saudi AIDS patients
for free, at a cost of $2,700 a month. Expatriates are
sent back home after an initial treatment. A few AIDS
societies--the first ever--also are being set up
and awaiting government permit, including the Al-Husna
Society. One of its members, Laila Taha al-Dulaymi,
said the group plans to financially help AIDS patients
and their families and tackle issues like joblessness among
AIDS patients who are often fired once their employers know
they are HIV-positive.
That is a problem that Jiddah resident Jibril
Ahmed, a 31-year-old guard, faced when, in 2004, he
told his boss he was diagnosed with AIDS. Ahmed had no
clue he had the virus until his seven-month-pregnant wife
and the fetus died. A test determined the three were HIV-positive.
Ahmed says he guessed he became infected eight
years ago, but he would not say how. "Everyone makes
mistakes," he said. Because of his wife's death, his
family learned of Ahmed's infection, including his two
daughters, who are HIV-negative. Ahmed said family members
at first were worried about catching the disease and
would not touch the plates, cups, and cutlery he used.
But now they have come to terms with it.
His daughters, 8 and 14 years old, know their
dad is sick but don't know the details. "I hope they
will eventually understand I didn't mean for this to
happen," said Ahmed.
Umm Muhammad also contracted the disease from
her husband, she says. "At first, I was very upset and
yelled at my husband and asked how the disease has
penetrated our home," she said. "But I'm certain he
hasn't done anything bad. That's why I'm still with him and
I support him."
But she draws the line when it comes to telling
her family. "When my 12-year-old daughter asked me
recently what AIDS is, I changed the subject," said
Umm Muhammad. "It's hard for me to tell her, even
though I know exactly what it is." (Donna Abu-Nasr, AP)
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