Senior health figures have called on the government, NGOs and members of the private sector to help step up attempts to promote AIDS prevention in the country after authorities discovered that a two year-old child had tested HIV positive earlier this year.
While accepting that HIV infection rates remained relatively low in the Maldives, Minister of State for Health Lubna Zahir Hussain said that efforts needed to be increased across all sectors of society to tackle attitudes towards high-risk behaviours that allow the virus to be transmitted.
Lubna heads the National Drug Agency (NDA). Her comments followed the hosting of a special NDA workshop on HIV prevention held on December 1 to commemorate World AIDS Day. The workshop was focused particularly on the HIV infection through drug abuse.
Though statistics indicate HIV infection rates have been limited in the Maldives over the space of the last two decades, health officials in the Maldives have begun to raise concerns about the risk of cases spreading across the country.
In October Minister of Health Dr Ahmed Jamsheed Mohamed claimed it was only through “incredible luck” that HIV had not spread across the Maldives, considering the prolific levels of unprotected sex and intravenous drug use.
Addressing concerns raised by Health Minister Jamsheed about the potential scope for HIV to spread beyond high-risk communities such as drug users, Lubna said greater effort was needed to address attitudes of the general public to the spread of the virus.
“I think what the health minister was saying is that it is not only people living bad lifestyles that are at risk [of HIV infection],” she said, reiterating concerns about the number of young people engaged in intravenous drug use and potentially dangerous sexual practices.
She spoke about a child who was suspected of having been infected from her mother at birth.
“We were first made aware of the case in April 2012 and as far as I know, this is the first case [of a child in the Maldives being born HIV positive],” she said. “However, I think it is important for the public to know the reality of the situation right now, whilst respecting [the child’s] privacy and well being.”
Lubna said she was ultimately encouraged by the work of the country’s health authorities in trying to address the HIV risk from national attitudes towards sex and drug use in the country, yet warned against complacency.
“This doesn’t mean that we continue to work at this pace to try and address attitudes towards AIDS and its spread,” she said.
Lubna called on civil society, the business community and government to speed up efforts to hold awareness and education events about the dangers posed through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, and to promote preventative measures to reduce the national HIV risk.
Attempts have been made to work with local drug NGOs such as Male’-based Journey on running special outreach programs and blood tests to try and monitor and manage infection rates.
However Lubna said that drug use was not the only area of concern in trying to curb HIV infection.
“Prostitution is another area that needs to be looked into. Awareness work in this area needs to be seen immediately,” she said.
She said greater awareness was needed not just among the general public, but by government authorities and law enforcement agencies.
First Lady’s concerns
During the NDA workshop, First Lady Ilham Hussain stressed that growing numbers of the country’s youth were subjected to dangerous habits that could potentially lead to HIV infection. She highlighted recreational drug use in particular as the leading cause of the virus spreading nationally.
Speaking earlier this year on the issue of HIV infection rates, Health Minister Jamsheed said that although the Maldives had remained on the HIV less-prevalent category since the first HIV positive case was found in 1991, “all the habits that may lead to the spread of HIV is excessively in practice here,” stating that it was only through “incredible luck” that the disease had not already spread widely throughout the country.
“What has always worried me most is that there is a large drug community, and that the virus might find its way into this group, especially the IV drug users. Once it does, it will spread like wild fire,” he said at the time.
“I don’t think this is too far off now. We have already identified one IV drug user who has been infected with HIV. What’s left is to see how much this has spread,” Jamsheed revealed.
Jamsheed said that he believed there were issues which needed to be opened to a “national debate” in order to move forward and take stronger preventive measures.
“We can simply stay inactive and keep talking for any amount of time by assuming the moral highground,’ Jamsheed said at Sunday’s press conference.
“That is to claim that we are Muslims, and by living in a Muslim state in Muslim ways we are doubtless protected from this disease. But that is never the reality anywhere in the world,” he said.
Jamsheed said it was unrealistic to assume all Muslims to live as “perfect Muslims”, and that even if they were, there was still a chance of infection. He stated that HIV is not transferred through sexual activity or visits to prostitutes alone.
In 2011, a total of 18 HIV positive cases were reported, out of which one was of a local. Between 1991 and 2011, 15 HIV cases were reported among Maldivians, while 168 cases of expatriate workers were also filed. Two out of the 15 cases were female, and all patients cited heterosexual transmission as the cause of infection.