SUDAN: Darfur at risk of mounting HIV/AIDS epidemic

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Sudan's strife is suspected as camouflaging the real HIV/AIDS rate
KHARTOUM, 7 December 2006 (PlusNews) - The United Nations is raising awareness about HIV/AIDS in Sudan, but has warned that infection rates may be on the rise in the unstable Darfur region.

"There are suggestions that the number of people who have the disease [in Darfur] is increasing," UNAIDS Country Coordinator Musa Bungudu told reporters in the Sudanese capital Khartoum recently.

Sudan's western region of Darfur, home to about 3 million people, was plunged into crisis in February 2003, when the mainly black African tribes of the region rebelled against President Omar al-Bashir's government, which in turn allegedly backed the mainly Arab Janjawid militia, which has been accused of committing a slew of atrocities against unarmed Darfur civilians.

Three years of fighting has caused the death of more than 200,000 people and forced another 2.5 million people from their homes. Rape and sexual assault are widespread in Darfur, and it is thought commercial sex networks have been established around the 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in the region, a development that could fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"When a population is displaced, the socio-economic base is totally affected; there is likely to be a change in behaviour," Bungudu said. "The bottom line is that the disease is in Darfur."

UNAIDS, in partnership with the Sudan National AIDS Programme, has launched initiatives aimed at raising awareness of HIV/AIDS across Sudan. However, HIV education is problematic in the Muslim north, where public discussion of sexual matters is a thorny issue.

Prevention efforts to stop the disease spreading in southern Sudan are complicated by the Roman Catholic Church's negative stance on condom use among the large Catholic population.

The UN estimates that Sudan has the highest rate of HIV infection in North Africa and the Middle East. However, statistics on the rate of HIV/AIDS infection in Sudan has been very difficult to compile. A 21-year long civil war between north and south Sudan, which ended with a peace agreement in 2005, rendered much of the south inaccessible to surveys on HIV/AIDS. In 2003, UNAIDS estimated that the infection rate in the nation of 41 million people hovered around 1.6 percent.

The UN is planning a comprehensive survey in Sudan in 2007, to try and ascertain nationwide infection rates. UNAIDS has warned, however, that statistics from Darfur may be difficult to obtain. Widespread violence in the region has granted only partial access to many areas of Darfur's three states.

"If you are going to do a successful survey you want to have each community represented in that survey," Bungudu said. "Those areas where the fighting is ongoing are likely not to be involved."


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

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