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New HIV/AIDS counselling and testing centres open in Egypt

© UNICEF Egypt/2005/ Pirrozi
A nurse takes blood at a testing centre in Egypt.

By Simon Ingram

CAIRO, 18 October 2005 - To most Egyptians, AIDS is a problem for other people to worry about. The disease has already claimed millions of lives worldwide, but – on the surface at least – its impact in Egypt has been minimal.

The official statistics are reassuring: According to UNAIDS, the estimated prevalence of HIV in Egypt in 2003 was less than 0.1 per cent of the population aged between 15 and 49.

The number of adults and children living with HIV was estimated at 12,000 in a population of around 70 million. But a number of factors – an overwhelmingly youthful population being one of them – have prompted concern that the situation could worsen unless prompt measures are taken.

One issue has been the lack of provision for people to be tested for the virus without revealing their identity. The government is now beginning to address this problem, by opening a number of Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centres (VCTCs) around the country. The hope is that the promise of anonymity will encourage those most at risk of contracting the disease – such as commercial sex workers, intravenous drug users and men having sex with men – to go for testing.

© UNICEF Egypt/2005/ Pirrozi
A consultation at a testing centre in Egypt.

The need for counselling

According to Dr. Ali Abd El-Sattar Gomaa, Head of Virus Administration at the Ministry of Health and Population, the guarantee that no information about a tested individual’s identity will be divulged is vital in a society where the stigma attached to AIDS is very powerful.

“All that happens here is totally secret,” says Dr. Gomaa. “When anyone comes for testing, the person chooses a secret code [used to track the progress of the test]. The test is voluntary and secret, and no information is passed to any other body or institute.”

The other key service provided by the new centres is the counselling offered to each individual prior to having their blood tested.

Dr. Hala Esmat, a counsellor at the VCTC in central Cairo, says providing people with accurate information about HIV and AIDS is essential, in part because of the many misconceptions that Egyptians have about how HIV or AIDS is transmitted.

“Many people think AIDS can be transmitted through eating or drinking or through saliva,” says Dr. Esmat. “They worry about transmitting it to their children. So we need to correct these wrong ideas before we start the testing.”

Major challenges remain

The new testing centres are among a number of encouraging signs that official attitudes towards the threat of HIV/AIDS are changing. Observers point to the increased role being played by civil society (including the creation of a support group for people living with HIV and AIDS), and the growing number of NGOs now working on the issue.

Also of note is the growing readiness of senior government officials to speak more publicly about HIV and AIDS. Media coverage of the epidemic and programmes addressing it has also increased significantly.

At the same time, its clear that major challenges remain. According to UNAIDS, issues such as awareness raising and infection control are now being addressed, and groups such as refugees and street children are now being reached more effectively. But people living with HIV and AIDS do not yet have access to a full range of treatments for infections caused by their condition.




18 October 2005:
UNICEF’s Simon Ingram reports on the opening of new HIV/AIDS testing centres in Egypt.

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