By Rabiah Rahman
The world is at war. The war I speak of is not amongst nations; it is not amongst human beings. We are at war with a disease. For over 25 years leaders in science, technology and medicine have been working together to combat the international pandemic known as the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, also known as AIDS. While there have been significant advancements in prolonging the mutation of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) into the AIDS virus, there remains no cure. AIDS is not a prejudiced disease. It can be contracted by members of any race, ethnicity, age, socio-economic level, nationality, gender or religion. Being diagnosed with AIDS is no different than being walked down the green mile, essentially a death sentence. For many years it was believed that the Middle East and North Africa had dodged the AIDS bullet, accounting for less than two percent of the world”s HIV/ AIDS case load. However, this number has been called into question by AIDS specialists. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa do not conduct systematic surveys of groups at high risk of infection. As a consequence, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS (UNAIDS) estimate of the total number of HIV/AIDS cases in the region lies within a very broad range of possible cases, from 200,000 to 1.4 million people. Inevitably, approximately only 5 percent of Middle Easterners and North Africans who need anti-retroviral treatment receive it. In the Middle East and North Africa, the assumption of low rates of infection has led governments to dismiss the disease as an insignificant problem or exhibit complacency in taking action. Many governments faced with pressing crises of housing, employment and education see HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment as low priorities. Other governments believe that social and cultural conservatism will somehow avert an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region. The Islamic community has long seen HIV/AIDS as a non-issue because of its inconsistency with Islamic traditions. However, Muslims are gradually relizing that HIV/AIDS is a major concern in the Islamic community, as well as in Islamic countries. Sexual practices that may not be allowed by our religion do exist. Prostitution, premarital sex and extramarital affairs, while being against Islamically acceptable behavior, occur within the Islamic community. Continuing to disregard these issues only enhances the spread of this devastating disease and perpetuates its stigma and misconceptions. Fearful of association with the stigma of the disease and social repercussions of a positive diagnosis, many Muslims refuse to be tested. Because of the controversial nature of the subject, admittedly, the cause and spread of HIV/AIDS is a difficult subject to address; however, it is one that can no longer go ignored by the Islamic community. So what exactly is AIDS? It is a set of symptoms and infections resulting from the damage to the human immune system caused by HIV. This condition progressively reduces the effectiveness of the immune system and leaves individuals susceptible to opportunistic infections and tumors.
An opportunistic infection? can be something as simple as contracting the common cold, or other minor infections that would normally be fought off by a healthy immune system. HIV is transmitted through direct contact of a mucous membrane or the bloodstream with a bodily fluid containing HIV, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluid, preseminal fluid, and breast milk. The symptoms of AIDS are primarily the result of conditions that do not normally develop in individuals with healthy immune systems. Most of these conditions are infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that are normally controlled by the elements of the immune system that HIV damages. The only way to know whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV. You cannot rely on symptoms alone because many people who are infected with HIV do not have symptoms for many years. Someone can look and feel healthy, but can still be infected with the disease and transmit it without knowing it. Today, over 33 million people are living with HIV/AIDS across the globe. The region that has been plagued by this vicious disease to the largest extent has been Sub-Saharan Africa. UNAIDS has estimated that 22.5 million people were living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2007. In just the past year, the AIDS pandemic in Africa has claimed the lives of an estimated 1.6 million people, leaving more than eleven million children orphaned by AIDS alone. The phenomenon of child-headed households has become another casualty of the war on AIDS. As parents are dying from AIDS, children are being forced to mature into adulthood at much younger ages. They become responsible for taking care of younger siblings, and have no choice but to enter the work force, sometimes at ages younger than 10 years old. This reality only perpetuates the cycle of young girls being recruited into the realm of illegal sex trade in order to provide basic necessities for their families. The United Stated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also risen an alarm for AIDS in our homeland with over a million Americans afflicted with the virus. The difference for Americans, however, is our ability to provide programs to help individuals diagnosed with the disease afford medication to prolong the mutation of HIV into AIDS. Education and prevention has been the main strategic tactic in combating this deadly virus. There is an extreme need to accept and develop HIV/AIDS educational programs geared toward Islamic communities. While these programs should emphasize Islamic moral values, they should also inform people about methods of protection from this life threatening illness. Many Muslims tend to believe that condom and sexual education will lead to sexual promiscuity. However, it is important to understand that the spread of the disease, throughout the Muslim world, has primarily been through heterosexual relationships; many women, who have contracted HIV, have been infected by their husbands who have engaged in extramaterial affairs and/or other Islamically immoral behavior. This phenomenon has changed the dynamics of the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS with whole families being wiped out and generations being erased. It is extremely important that Muslims accept vulnerability to HIV. Through multi-million dollar campaigns, international organizations have waged a deadly assault on the spreading of the HIV/AIDS, and the Islamic community has also joined the ranks. In November of 2007, Islamic Relief held international Islam and HIV/AIDS consultations in Johannesburg, South Africa for a deeper look and discussion on Islam and HIV/AIDS, which built on previous Islamic gatherings on the same topic. One of the aims of the conference was to discuss religiously acceptable approaches to dealing with the HIV pandemic. The conference was attended by over 200 people from more that 50 countries. In attendance were people living with HIV, Islamic scholars and academics from a variety of countries and backgrounds, practitioners fighting the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS, medical doctors and representatives from donor agencies. Consultation discussions included talks on the stigma and discrimination; rights and obligations; gender dimensions; awareness and prevention; protection, treatment, care and support; and particularly vulnerable groups. Through discussions and consultations, the Islam and HIV/AIDS conference yielded optimism for the future of the Islamic community”s place amongst the ranks of the war on HIV/AIDS. The result was a comprehensive work plan to address the issue of HIV/AIDS in the Islamic community. They seek to establish an HIV fund to help increase HIV related projects in Muslim communities, as well as increasing lobbying, advocacy and training in order to enhance the priority level of HIV/AIDS in Muslim countries. The conference was a positive step forward for the Islamic community; through awareness about the HIV/AIDS issue and how it affects the Islamic community, we can begin to address prevention mechanisms within the Islamic community. If we continue to be ignorant about the spread and cause of HIV/AIDS with our communities then we may find ourselves or someone we care about to be its next victim. While the war wages on, innocent lives are lost to a vicious enemy that takes no prisoners. The battle against HIV/AIDS must be a joint effort amongst all of the world”s nations and people. The strategy must be long term, because this crisis has no quick fix.? As Dr. Peter Piot, UNAIDS Executive Director, stated, When 8,000 people die from AIDS every single day, when 11,000 people are infected every day, the world would not understand, and should not forgive, if we fail the people without a voice who count on us.?