Egyptian Actor Khaled Abol Naga learns firsthand about the difficulties facing Egyptians living with HIV
Alexandria, 22 March, 2007: Issues of stigma and discrimination were the focus of an encounter between popular Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga and a group of people living with HIV in the port city of Alexandria.
The meeting was organized by UNICEF and the NGO Caritas as part of the “Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS and Hepatitis C” Campaign, launched last November in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Population, the Coca-Cola Company and other partners.
Mr. Abol Naga – who is participating as a spokesperson for the campaign – met members of a support group for people living with HIV. The support group meets on a regular basis to give participants a space where they can share their concerns and problems without fear of discrimination and provide one another with moral support.
Members of the group told Mr Abol Naga that finding appropriate medical care was made difficult because physicians often refuse to treat or even properly examine people living with HIV. Many participants said they have to hide the fact that they are HIV positive for fear of rejection and discrimination from others in their communities.
“Those who find out that they are HIV+ve are left devastated. They need all the support people can offer,” said one of the participants. “But instead of standing by them, most people turn against them”.
Mr Abol Naga expressed empathy, and pointed out that battling stigma was one of the main purposes of the Unite Against AIDS campaign in Egypt as well as globally.
“I understand it is not easy to have the courage to speak about your status,” said Mr. Abol Naga. “I am here today to find out how I can help you in fighting stigma”.
Among the personal testimonies he heard was that of a woman whose husband kept the fact that he was HIV positive a secret for two years while maintaining their marital life.
“My husband has passed away and I am living with HIV,” the woman said. “I have to raise three children on my own with very little resources. My husband’s pension is my only source of income.” She added that the support group had lifted her morale, “which for me is even more important than treatment”.
The lack of accurate information available about HIV/AIDS was one of the common problems participants said they had faced – a problem UNICEF and its partners hope to change during the five-year campaign.
During his visit to Alexandria, Mr Abol Naga toured a voluntary counseling and confidential testing (VCCT) centre for HIV also run by Caritas. The centre’s director, Dr. Sany Kozman, explained that counseling and testing services were conducted anonymously and no personal records were asked for – a practice followed in all VCCT centres around Egypt as a way of encouraging those most at risk of contracting the virus to go for testing and access care and support services.
Currently, there are 12 fixed VCCT units and 9 mobile ones working across the country, mostly operated by the Ministry of Health and Population.
Among other activities, Caritas implements community and school anti-AIDS projects, where social workers engage children – for example using drama -- to address issues of stigma and discrimination.
Although HIV prevalence in Egypt is still low in the general population, the number of reported HIV infections is steadily increasing. The “Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS and Hepatitis C” Campaign was launched to raise awareness about HIV and other conditions in a society where misinformation about AIDS still persists and the perception of risk is irrationally low.
Simon Ingram, UNICEF Egypt Media, firstname.lastname@example.org