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AFGHANISTAN: Government calls for help as HIV rates rise

Photo: Nejat Rehabilitation Centre
A shot in the arm for the epidemic
KABUL, 2 July 2007 (PlusNews) - The numbers may be small, but HIV infection rates are rising in Afghanistan, prompting the government to call for help from UNAIDS.

Although just 245 people have been confirmed as HIV-positive, "we estimate up to 3,000 more people, at large, could be infected with the virus," Afghanistan's health minister, Mohammad Amin Fatimi, told IRIN/PlusNews.

In 2006, there were only 75 people living with HIV and AIDS in an estimated population of 27 million, but according to Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health, the rise in cases is due in part to an improved capacity to test for HIV.

"We opened two counselling and voluntary testing centres in 2007, which increased the total number of such facilities to six throughout the country," said Saifurahman Wardak, HIV/AIDS programme coordinator at the ministry.

Fatimi said between 60 percent and 80 percent of those who tested positive were injecting drug users who shared contaminated needles.

A 25-year-old HIV-positive addict in the capital, Kabul, told IRIN he started injecting heroin five years ago when he was a refugee in neighbouring Iran. "We were several people using a single needle. None of us knew about HIV or whether any one of us have this problem," he said.

There are at least 50,000 heroin addicts in Afghanistan, which produces 92 percent of the world's illicit opium, according to a joint survey by the government and United Nations in late 2005.

"We have asked for technical and financial assistance," Fatimi said. "We also suggested that UNAIDS establish its presence here and help us curb the virus."

UNAIDS official Ousama Tawil, who visited Afghanistan last month, told IRIN his agency was assessing plans to open an office in Kabul. "I think the situation is getting serious and it is the right time for Afghanistan to intensify its efforts against HIV/AIDS," he said.

Although HIV prevalence is low in Afghanistan, a lack of AIDS awareness and high-risk behaviour among vulnerable populations, such as drug users and men who have sex with men, could trigger a potential leap in infections.

Laid low by decades of ruinous conflict, Afghanistan adopted its first national AIDS programme only in 2003. The government does not provide antiretroviral drugs, which can prolong a patient's life.

Landlocked Afghanistan is one of the world's 10 least developed countries, and over three million of its people live as refugees in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.

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Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews,

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

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