By Karima Rhanem | Morocco TIMES 12/1/2005 | 6:32 pm
Casablanca--- As the globe marks the World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, new HIV infections have surged in Morocco making the number of full-blown AIDS cases reach 1839. The Moroccan Ministry of Health said the number of HIV positive in the country ranges between 16,000 and 25,000.
Several associations working in the field of HIV prevention are alarmed at the spread of AIDS among women.
Today, in Morocco and worldwide, women are at the highest risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. In 1988 the percentage of Moroccan women living with AIDS was 8 %; in 2005 the number increased to 38 %.
Among the HIV-positive Moroccan women, 65 % have been infected by their husbands. The majority of these women were virgins at the time of their marriage and, on average, ten years younger than their husbands. They are primarily illiterate and unskilled workers or housewives.
There are numerous other reasons that compound to make women particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. The fear of discrimination and embarrassment is a major factor that prevents many women from accessing HIV information, from getting blood test and seeking treatment.
Another huge problem is that women find it difficult to access adequate healthcare because of the strong taboos around the subject of sexually transmitted diseases.
Aware of the danger of AIDS, Morocco has declared the fight against it a national cause. 2M channel along with the ALCS (Association Marocaine Contre le SIDA) joined in forces to organize the biggest ever communication campaign against AIDS, called Sidaction Maroc 2005 from Dec. 2 to 15.
Sidaction is an unprecedented event in Morocco and the MENA region, and the first of its kind to raise funds to fight against the spread of AIDS.
During the anti-AIDS campaign, 2M is scheduling debates, reportages and a 5 hour evening show including a telethon to raise funds for the fight of AIDS.
Anti-AIDS associations, war of words
However, this important event has stirred other AIDS control associations' disappointment. This event has brought to light the 'war' between the ALCS and the network of anti-AIDS associations.
Himmich, ALCS president, stressed that there is no war between anti-AIDS associations concerning the aid given by international organizations to fight against the disease. She added that this financial assistance is given to the Ministry of Health by the Global Fund to Fight Tuberculosis, Malaria and AIDS, which allocates the aid to all the associations working in the field.
Evoking the question as to why other anti-AIDS associations were not invited to the telethon, Himmich said that they were invited but they centered their attention to the aid more than the telethon itself.
However, the network of anti-AIDS associations seems not to agree with what Himmich said. Abdessamad Oussayh, president of AMJCS (Association Marocaine des Jeunes Contre le SIDA) told Morocco Times the conflict of the associations over financial support does not serve the cause of the fight against AIDS.
“This conflict will have a negative impact on HIV positive and AIDS patients who will lose confidence in these associations,” Oussayh said.
“We have been in the field for 12 years now, and our concern is to serve the health of the Moroccan youth, and not to fight for aid. We have done many anti-AIDS related projects with very limited or no means. The issue is not about financial assistance. Rather, we disagree on the way ALCS has proposed our participation in the telethon,” he added.
Oussayh stressed that the network of associations, in which AMJCS is part of, has refused to mislead the public that there is no conflict or no coordination between the anti-AIDS associations. He said that the only time they meet is at the Ministry of Health when they discuss the UNAIDS programme.
Oussayh said “we are also actors in the filed and not marionettes.”
Nadia Bezzad, president of the Pan-African Organization Against AIDS (OPALS) said that three anti-AIDS associations including hers did not accept to participate in the Sidaction campaign because they refused to play the role of a puppet for ALCS.
“Sidaction campaign as known worldwide is a national campaign which knows the participation of all the actors working in the field of AIDS prevention. We at the network, which includes along with 24 associations, three anti-AIDS associations refused to be just a puppet for one association. It is absolutely not because of the issue of aid,” Bezzad explained.
Bezzad stressed that the network of associations was opened to everybody who wanted to join in. “Our colleagues in ALCS had a different vision when they refused to join in, may be because they weren't the initiators of the idea. But we are still open to anyone who can help in the fight against AIDS in our country, and that's the most important thing,” she said.
OPALS, LMLMST, AMJCS have joined the network of non governmental organisations working on fighting the spread of AIDS in Morocco on Jan. 21, 2003. This network unites now about 26 associations, engaged in the social, medical and cultural development field.
It aims at allowing the exchange of experiences and the coordination of their activities.
To achieve their objectives, the associations fighting AIDS have implemented many strategies to inform people about AIDS. These include, identifying and utilizing communication networks, training field workers, locating and mobilizing opinion leaders, activating link persons, establishing rotating peer group discussions, and providing information and supplies at meetings.
Despite their limited budget, the network has fulfilled some of its objectives, including awareness-raising campaigns.
The major associations working in the field of fighting AIDS in Morocco include ALCS, the first association set up in 1988 in the Maghreb and the Middle East to combat AIDS; OPALS, set up in 1994 by a group of doctors, professionals in the health sector and social science instructors to combat the spread of AIDS; and AMJCS, created in 1993 by a group of young Moroccans to fight against AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STI).
AIDS still taboo subject in Morocco
Despite the efforts made by the Ministry of Health and non governmental associations to raise awareness about the danger of AIDS, HIV is still an issue surrounded with stigma and taboo. People do not talk openly about friends or family members who might have died from AIDS. AIDS is perceived by many as a disease of "the others", a disease which comes from outside. The message "Fidelity or condoms" has been widely used. However, it has hindered the generalization of the use of condoms, because asking for a condom consequently implies distrust of the partner.
According to many organizations working in the field of AIDS prevention, condoms are the only efficient solution for vulnerable groups who are at risk to protect themselves from sexually transmitted illnesses. However, for many Moroccans and Muslim religious leaders, the distribution of condoms encourages sexual misconduct.
The gist of religious teachings in this respect is that religion encourages and advocates marriage and prohibits all other alternatives for sexual enjoyment. Religion also prescribes the preservation of the human rational faculties and prohibits the use of all kinds of substances, such as drugs and narcotics that may impair them, regardless of the manner in which these substances are taken or administered. Religion also urges cleanliness to protect human beings from risks of infection by destructive diseases, the most dangerous of which, in this day and age, are sexually transmitted diseases, and AIDS in particular.
At the time of the prophet, Muslims, both men and women, were never too shy to ask him about everything, including such private affairs as sexual life, so as to know the teachings and rulings of their religion. They asked the prophet directly, or through his wives, and this proved that sexual matters were not taboo but were fully acknowledged and respected. "Shyness is part of the faith" as the prophet taught, but he also taught "There is no shyness in matters of religion," even involving the intimate aspects of sexual life.
It is recognized that the level of education about sexuality and health in Morocco and other Arab and Muslim countries is much lower than in many other parts of the world. Conversations on sexual relations are always shrouded in embarrassment, which prevents frank discussion and leads to ambiguity.
HIV/AIDS is a critical problem among young men and women. Young people today are marrying later than the older generations but are starting sex very early. Despite the risks, few young men use condoms the first time they have sex. Young unmarried people often do not consider the long-term consequences of current actions, and they take more risks, often thinking "it can't happen to me.” These young people need guidance, encouragement, and access to condoms.
Sexual education is essential within the appropriate considerations of age and educational standards; it must be complementary to health education and religious instruction. A balanced blend of these interrelated disciplines must be devised, with the ultimate aim of achieving a physical and spiritual balance compatible with the prevailing cultures and traditions of the country.
It is not shameful to talk about AIDS and sexual health, and every AIDS infected person has the right to adequate treatment. Patients must be made aware of how to prevent both the deterioration of their health and the infection of others. Religions do not allow the exposure of patients to discrimination, disgrace or neglect, for whatever reason and no matter how their infection has occurred.
5 million newly infected in the world in 2005
The Aids epidemic has claimed 3.1 million lives in 2005 and more than half a million were children, a UN report said.
Close to five million people were newly infected with the virus in 2005, the annual UNAIDS/WHO Aids epidemic update said recently.
The total number of people with HIV has reached an estimated all-time high of 40.3 million, the report said.
The number of people living with HIV has increased in the past two years. Sub-Saharan Africa remains hardest-hit, and is home to 25.8 million people with HIV, almost a million more than in 2003.
Two-thirds of all people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa, as are 77% of all women with HIV.