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Access to care: MENA region's collective effort to combat HIV

Article-Access to care: MENA region's collective effort to combat HIV

CanvaPro Rise in HIV cases
Director of Saudi Community Society of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases highlights the latest strategies to improve access to care for HIV patients.

The MENA region is witnessing a rise in HIV infections, and both healthcare leaders and stakeholders are actively working to address this pressing issue. The 7th edition of the HIV Summit, recently hosted by Gilead Sciences in the Middle East, brought together leading minds to discuss strategies for overcoming the challenges in combating HIV.

Speaking to Omnia Health, Dr. Nezar Bahbari, Director of the Saudi Community Society of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases said that a key outcome of the event was the level of commitment demonstrated by stakeholders. This involved plans to launch HIV awareness campaigns and modify existing regulations to address the epidemic. They also acknowledged the role social media plays in facilitating sexual encounters and stressed the need for innovative awareness campaigns.

“It was further agreed that modifications to current regulations are imperative to provide the necessary education in efforts to contain the virus, acknowledging that the current approach has not yielded sufficient results. In my opinion, this commitment was the most critical outcome of the summit,” said Dr. Bahbari.

The importance of comprehensive awareness programmes at educational institutions and the significance of HIV testing and prevention strategies were also topics of discussion, alongside various communication approaches for effective messaging and overcoming public backlash.

“Those overseeing HIV programmes within various ministries recognised the role social media platforms play in facilitating easier sexual encounters. Given this reality, it is crucial to launch innovative awareness campaigns that align with the evolving social media landscape. In truth, comprehensive awareness programmes need to be introduced at the school and university levels. Furthermore, it is also crucial to teach the public about the importance of HIV testing and amplify efforts in deploying effective prevention strategies,” Dr. Bahbari explained.

Related: Shedding light on the search for an HIV cure

Saudi Arabia takes the lead in HIV awareness and treatment

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries stepped up their national initiatives to strengthen public HIV awareness and treatment options for people living with the virus, said Dr. Bahbari. This involves a rise in HIV awareness campaigns and education targeted at the public to foster an informed understanding of testing and treatment.

The most substantial breakthrough at the HIV Summit was the regulators' approval and commitment to prioritise free, anonymous testing among individuals.
“Once this strategy is adopted, access to medical treatment will become significantly smoother and more efficient. In fact, medical treatment is readily available in the region. For example, in Saudi Arabia, insurance companies bear the cost of medical treatment for HIV-infected individuals. Notably, it is the first country in the MENA region to implement such an initiative,” Dr. Bahbari commented.

Leaders at the event were in mutual agreement to provide necessary training to clinics in order to safeguard patient privacy and welfare. The introduction of affordable home testing kits, akin to pregnancy tests, was also a significant point of discussion. By making these tests available in pharmacies, individuals can test at their own convenience. This solution may incentivise regular testing following each relationship.

HIV epidemic in a conservative region

Although there are existing policies that address this issue, Dr. Bahbari said that their implementation is lacklustre due to the reserved nature of these countries which makes it challenging to acknowledge sexual relationships and discuss related topics openly.

People in the MENA region are also hesitant to undergo medical tests because they fear the repercussions of a positive result. Consequently, they engage in relationships without prior testing, she added. “Public education about the matter is inadequate and there is insufficient emphasis on the importance of testing,” she said.

Related: Genomics and its rapid evolution in the Middle East

Importance of HIV testing and policies

HIV is detectable and transmissible, and testing can serve as the first line of defense. HIV may also take around eight to 10 years for the symptoms to manifest in infected individuals. During this asymptomatic period, people may unknowingly transmit the virus to others. Diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment, however, can eradicate the risk of transmission. As a chronic disease, HIV can be managed effectively with treatment, enabling patients to live long, normal lives.

Dr. Bahbari explained that a two-step approach is necessary to curb the spread of HIV. The first step is to get tested prior to initiating a new relationship. In the event of a positive test, immediate medical intervention is necessary to ensure the treatment's effectiveness and eradicate the virus from the bloodstream. Patients who undergo treatment for more than two months usually clear the virus from their systems, making it virtually impossible to transmit the virus subsequently.

The second step is to increase public education and awareness campaigns to highlight the significance of testing prior to forming any relationships.

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