Lebanon News

Activists work to break down drug, HIV stigma in religious community

BEIRUT: Drug addiction and HIV infections are on the rise in Lebanon and the Middle East and aid officials say more needs to be done to break down religious and cultural resistance to recognizing, treating and preventing drug use and the spread of disease.The Middle East and North Africa Harm Reduction Association ran a conference Tuesday to educate religious leaders on the need to help drug users and prevent the spread of disease, tandem taboo topics that tread across religious prohibitions.

The executive director of the association, Elie Aaraj, said breaking through those boundaries can be difficult but they need to come down so drug and disease prevention services like needle exchanges, detox and rehab centers can reach the hundreds of people who are in need of the services. HIV is very frequently spread through sex and shared drug needles.

“Sometimes it is difficult because of the ignorance – excuse me for using this term. When you say HIV for them its sexual intercourse or as they say illegal sexual intercourse. When you say harm reduction they say they are using drugs,” Aaraj said with Christian and Muslim religious leaders from a broad array of sects in the audience.

“Even for some people in the science field, for physicians, medical doctors or others, they cannot accept to give drug users a clean needle or a syringe, so it’s not only religious leaders, it’s about raising awareness about the topic in the whole community as well,” he said.

Aaraj spoke to the religious audience about the public danger of drug use, how it’s connected to HIV and the need to have an open discussion about the problem to prevent HIV’s spread.

Religious leaders will hear Wednesday from aid workers about their experiences and discuss the role of religion in treating the problems.

Drug addiction and treatment go largely unacknowledged in the country and region, while diseases like HIV and hepatitis spread rapidly through shared needles in the silence.

The Middle East is one of only two regions in the world where HIV rates are climbing, according to a recent report from the U.N. AIDS organization.

In Lebanon there were 109 newly reported AIDS cases last year, according to UNAIDS, while advocacy organizations say many infected people, particularly drug users, go uncounted.

UNAIDS and partner organizations offer a slate of harm-reduction programs for drug users and at-risk communities such as sex workers to help reduce the spread of disease. Programs include syringe exchange and contraceptive distribution. After years of such health work the global rate of HIV spread has declined but infection rates remain high in many areas. There were 39,000 new HIV infections in the Middle East last year, higher than infection rates in 2001.

After a decade of advocacy work and drug services operating below the surface in Lebanon, government officials have recently begun to acknowledge the drug problems in the country and to work to support aid programs.

Health Ministry officials were present at the religious leader workshop Tuesday. The government rolled out a national strategy for drug treatment and prevention in July that encourages local aid work, finances rehabilitation programs and offers services at public hospitals. One of the only drug rehabilitation centers in the region operates in the village of Sehayleh.

But attitudes that refuse to acknowledge drug use and disease infection remain prevalent in many areas of the country. Needle exchange programs are scarce and the number of aid programs are severely limited. A spike in drug use in Sidon reported earlier this year was met by denial and finger-pointing at Israel by religious leaders.

Advocates said that while more needs to be done, government recognition can lead to the ground swell of support that the country needs to change attitudes permanently.

“I think it’s an excellent first step,” said UNAIDS regional director Renu Chahil-Graf, who added Lebanon was one of the few countries in the region to address its drug use problem head-on.

“It affects the people’s attitude, they hear it and understand.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 12, 2012, on page 4.

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