December is the month marked worldwide with the celebration of World AIDS Day, and Egypt commemorated the event, 18 December, by highlighting the most recent endeavours to fight the condition and support people living with HIV (PLHIV), as well as reviewing the most recent related statistics.
UNAIDS Egypt country manager Dr Heba Ali said that the slogan of this year's campaign is "Societies make the difference," which comes in the wake of prior successful endeavours to mobilise different stakeholders to combat the negative stigma that still prevails around the disease, raise awareness in society, and increase capacity building for reaching out to those in need.
Ali stressed that as the Joint United Nations Team on HIV/AIDS in cooperation with the Ministry of Health and Population and its National AIDS Programme (NAP) commemorate World AIDS Day, all stakeholders hail this successful partnership that saw provision of services for free for people living with HIV, including testing, counseling, provision of medication and clinical services, and stressed that this time of year is always a chance to call on stakeholders to raise more awareness regarding the nature of HIV and to eradicate the stigma still associated with it.
Ali explained that Egypt has formulated a new strategy for 2018-2022, adopting global targets in the prevention and treatment of HIV.
Egypt conforms as well to the UN response against HIV/AIDS to obtain the 90-90-90 treatment target by 2020. She explained that it aims at reaching 90 percent of PLHIV to know their status, to get 90 percent of those initiated in treatment, and to get 90 percent of those on treatment virally suppressed, by adhering to the treatment course.
The main focus of the strategy is on increased testing and linking people to healthcare, and then following up with them until full suppression of the virus is attained.
On behalf of the Ministry of Health's Infectious Disease Control Sector, Dr Iman Abbas noted that the Egyptian government took a historic step in 2014 towards offering treatment to all, and that starting 2017 the government started totally funding treatment for HIV through antiretroviral therapies (ART), where patients receive the treatment as soon as the virus is discovered, aligning with the most recent international guidelines and not waiting till a later stage, as was the case in previous times.
The NAP coordinator Dr Heba El Sayed shed light on recent 2019 statistics in Egypt. HIV prevalence in Egypt is a mere 0.02 percent, with the number registered at 16,000. This makes Egypt a low-prevalence country. Nevertheless, the estimated number of cases is 22,000, and further endeavours have to be made to close the gap between the two figures.
Around 2,470 new infection cases were identified last year, 13 percent of which are females.
Although the age of infection peaks around 25 to 34, increasing numbers are being now detected at much younger ages – as young as 11-years-old, due to high risk behaviours.
According to the ministry, around 8,700 adhere to the medications required to keep the virus suppressed and thus limit risk of transmittance.
"We have made huge strides also in terms of the way people discover their infection. This year, 36 percent knew about their infection through voluntary testing in comparison with 22 percent last year. Unfortunately, 38 percent still came to know after symptoms appeared, which indicates a later stage of the disease," she said.
Further information about the situation Egypt was addressed by Dr Walid Kamal, manager of Egypt's National AIDS Programme, which was one established in 1986 at an early phase when HIV was still new on the scene and as soon as the first infection in Egypt surfaced in the same year.
“In Egypt, most infections occur between the ages of 15 to 49, of which 80 percent are males,” he said.
Kamal added that NAP estimates that females comprise only 18 percent of detected cases, which is an indication of the stigma that still surrounds the topic.
He explained that in 18 governorates in Egypt, there are 24 centres for testing and consulting providing services to citizens in absolute discretion.
Nicola Moawad-World AIDS day Cairo 2019
One highlight of the event was the presence of Lebanese star Nicolas Mouawad, who flew from Beirut especially to attend and talk about his role World AIDS Campaign ambassador.
Nicola recounted how his passion about the cause was ignited when he was filming a documentary and met with an elderly lady who told him about suffering from misconceptions in society, and that some people around her even feared staying with her in the same room, and that she then used to state that she had cancer, rather than telling her true condition, to make life easier.
"Feeling for those who not only have to fight this gruesome virus but also the stigma associated with it, I had to step forward and have a positive role in raising awareness of the human aspects of supporting PLHIV," he said.
The panel explained that person carrying the virus can be ignorant about his situation for up to 10 years, adding that 25 percent of PLHIV worldwide do not know about their infection.
According to figures issued by Ministry of Health and Population in 2015, only four percent of young women in Egypt and seven percent of young men between the ages of 15 to 24 had correct knowledge about HIV, which adds to the state of disinformation, stigma and discrimination.
Recommendations focused on the importance of further supporting civil society in its engagement with the cause.
According to UNAIDS, the rate of HIV infections in the region of Middle East and North Africa skyrocketed by 30 percent in the last three years, which is one of the highest rates worldwide.
The number of PLHIV globally in 2018 is 37.9 million, and the newly infected in 2018 were 1.7 million. Those who passed away in the same year due to AIDS-related illness reached 770,000, of whom 100,000 were under the age of 15.