Fighting AIDS in Iran seen tough due to taboos
By Zahra Hosseinian
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran is fighting the spread of the AIDS virus by treating sufferers for free but taboos about the issue in the Islamic Republic are hindering efforts to raise public awareness, Iranian health officials said on Saturday.
Injecting drug users are the main risk group in Iran, which is on a heroin smuggling route to the West from the opium fields of neighboring Afghanistan, the world's number one producer of the opium poppy, the officials said.
But some health officials are concerned about the rising number of sexually transmitted cases of HIV.
More than 16,000 people suffer from HIV/AIDS in a country with a population of about 70 million, Deputy Health Minister Moayed Alavian told a conference. But he also said some estimates put the number of sufferers at 70,000.
"From this figure (of 16,000), 66.7 percent are injecting drug users," he told a conference at Tehran University to mark international AIDS day.
He said the Health Ministry faced challenges in fighting HIV/AIDS because of the social stigma attached to the disease and the fact that the subject was considered a taboo.
"There are also social and cultural limitations in providing education on how to prevent (the disease) and informing the public," Alavian said.
Iran is a low prevalence country in terms of HIV infections with a rate of about 0.16 percent of the adult population compared to North America where it is 0.8 percent, experts say.
But, in a pamphlet distributed at the conference, Health Minister Kamran Lankarani was quoted as saying he was concerned by rising sexual transmission of the disease.
"Concerns over the spread of the disease through sexual behavior have increased," he said.
In a speech to the conference, the minister said: "One of our country's greatest points in this regards is that all services related to HIV/AIDS are totally free of charge and that includes drugs, tests and all kinds of treatments."
Because of "free and sufficient treatments and good programs," he said Iran was witnessing a decline in the number of women and children under the age of 15 suffering from AIDS.
A U.N. official said in June that HIV infection rates in Iran were increasing due to the growing inflow of cheap heroin from Afghanistan and also cited more sexually transmitted cases.
But he also spoke of "progressive and pragmatic" efforts to fight the AIDS virus in Iran.
During the conference, a video clip of a campaign encouraging "Abstinence, Be faithful, Condom use" was played.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)