SOMALIA: Cross-border migration an HIV/AIDS threat

Somalia's HIV prevalence of about one percent is low, but the cross-border movement of people is causing an increase in infection rates, according to Dr Fernando Morales of the UN Children's Fund's Somalia office. Northwestern Somalia, which shares a frontier with Ethiopia, is particularly at risk.

Leo Kenny, UNAIDS country coordinator for Somalia, told PlusNews: "The prevalence rate is very high for a Muslim society and it is heading towards a generalised epidemic. Somalia is at the same stage that South Africa was 10 years ago."

The country is divided into three distinct regions: the self-declared republic of Somaliland in the northwest, the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland in the northeast, and south-central Somalia. According to a 2004 study by the UN World Health Organisation, HIV prevalence in Somaliland was 1.4 percent, hitting 2.5 percent in the port city of Berbera - the highest in the country - compared to 0.6 in south-central Somalia.

Prevalence in neighbouring Ethiopia is about 3.5 percent, but in some border areas that figure can jump to 10 percent, said Morales.
Reasons for increased HIV vulnerability among mobile groups
  • Poverty
  • Discrimination
  • Exploitation
  • Separation from families and partners
  • Separation from social-cultural norms
  • Limited access to HIV/AIDS services
SOURCE: International Organization for Migration

Somalia has had no legitimate government for the past fifteen years and suffers from chronic food insecurity. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis live and work in the neighbouring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia, and often travel to and from their homeland for economic or social reasons, while thousands more are refugees.

A 2006 UNAIDS report on cross-border mobility in the Horn of Africa found it was not uncommon for men who were away from home, such as truckers and traders, to have unprotected sex with commercial sex workers. For displaced and vulnerable women, transactional sex was often a coping mechanism that placed them at increased risk of infection.

Among mobile populations, various social, cultural, and linguistic barriers increased the difficulty of accessing HIV/AIDS services. The problem in Somalia was being compounded by the general unavailability of condoms and lack of adequate healthcare, said Kenny of UNAIDS.

Regional governments have begun recognising the importance of confronting the issue of migration as a factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS. At a meeting in November in Somaliland, representatives of national AIDS commissions from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and southern Sudan cited greater cooperation between governments in the Horn of Africa as the key to winning the regional fight against the pandemic.

"We have a long history of movement across borders in our region, and we know that mobile population groups may have limited access to HIV prevention and treatment services," Muse Kassim, executive director of the Somaliland AIDS Commission, told delegates. "This is a challenge to the region in its entirety, and cannot be solved through national responses alone."


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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