Palestinian AIDS patients enjoy little care, little mercy

The following story was published in 2006 by my Gazan journalist friend Ahmed Aldabba:

The way in which 14-year-old Osama, not his real name, caught the HIV/AIDS virus was unusual, but the reaction of the Palestinian society was not so surprising.

“I got the visrus from a blood transfusion when I was 12 years old,” said the youngster from Gaza. “All of my friends left me when they knew that I’m AIDS patient. I feel I’m alone in this world.”

He said his freinds are afraid to get infected from him, as he was, but he tottaly believes that it is not his fault that he has AIDS now.

“I’ll never finish college. I’ll never have a family like the others. I will never have babies. I also believe that it will not be long before I die,” he added.

According to official palestinian sources, there are 36 palestinians living with AIDS in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

“Altogether, there have been 61 recorded cases in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since 1987, with five times as many men infected as women,” said Ezzat Gouda, a doctor and director of the sexually transmitted diseases (STD) unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Twenty-five of those infected have already died, Gouda said. More than half the existing patients are described as being heterosexual, two as bisexual and one, homosexual. A further 11, including Osama, were infected during blood transfusions. Three were infected from injecting drugs.

Gouda added that efforts by Palestinian health care providers and institutions to help patients, were not coordinated, and provided patchy cover. “It is necessary and urgent to have a national plan for STD and HIV services in Palestine,” he said.

Gouda, who also heads the Palestinian National AIDS Programme (NAP), established in 1998, said that officials may not know the true extent of the problem in OPT because the social stigma attached to AIDS in the Arab world prevents people from reporting to the medical authorities.

In a situation exclusive in the Middle East, the stigma attached to AIDS in the OPT means positive Palestinians are both denied entry into Israel for security reasons, and identified by Israeli intelligence services as potential informers, according to an Israeli non-governmental group, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI).

The Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, believes that the stigma of having AIDS in Palestinian society means people living with it are more likely to be coerced into carrying out an attack to reestablish their family’s reputation, PHRI said. “The Shin Bet also exploits exactly these things to recruit them as collaborators and to wring information out of them.”

However, Israeli security sources denied that they use palestinians’ need to treatment for security gains.

In a muslim and conservative society like the palestinian, people believe they will not be infected by HIV because Islam takes a hard line on some of the practices by which the virus can be spread, like homosexuality and sex work.

“The Islamic religion stands as a shield to AIDS. If we follow Islam’s instructions, AIDS will never be a problem at all,” said Sheikh Ismael Bulbul, instructor of Islamic jurisprudence at al-Azhar University of Gaza.

Gouda said some efforts to spread AIDS awareness have been made by the Palestinian authorities and the United Nations Works Relief Association (UNRWA), which looks after Palestinian refugees. But both organisations spend most of their time grappling with the more immediate crises affecting Palestinians.

“Though HIV-positive Palestinians are treated for free, antiretroviral drugs are not always available,” he said. “We depend on the donation of drugs, national and international. So we have many problems in view of Israel’s siege and repeated closures of the Palestinian territory. In some cases, patients were suffering unnecessary illness because they had no drugs or were denied access to Israel.”

Gouda also said that HIV/AIDS patients continue to suffer from a lack of expertise among medical staff. “The lack of trained medical staff and social workers for counselling and psychological support in the field of HIV/AIDS also stands as a grave constraint,” he added.