Thursday, August 10, 2006

IRAQ: HIV-positive couple murdered


BAGHDAD, 9 Aug 2006 (IRIN/PLUSNEWS) - First came the phone call - a man who accused Farid Abbas of carrying “an indecent disease” and telling him that he’d be killed “for the safety of the country”.

Two days later, 42-year-old Abbas, who had been HIV-positive for nine years, was gunned down on the street.

“Witnesses said that while the man was shooting him from the window of a car, he was shouting loudly, ‘Death to all people who carry diseases acquired from indecent methods against Islamic beliefs’,” said Abbas’s sister, who asked that her name not be used, for security reasons.

That was not the end of the tragedy. On 30 July, Abbas’s wife Hania Omar, 38, who also was HIV-positive, was leaving home to pick up their 11-year-old son from school when another drive-by assailant shot her dead.

The man dropped a letter which said, “This is the price to pay for a Muslim woman who is willing to sleep with a dirty man whose blood is infected with the devil’s impurity.” The police shrugged off the deaths as “sectarian violence”.

Abbas and his wife were both hemophiliacs, and were infected with HIV from contaminated blood in the late 1980s.

In the conservative, religious environment of Iraq, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the disease it causes, AIDS, are associated with homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, and drug use – all considered religious offences.

Little awareness

There is little awareness of the fact that the virus can be contracted via contaminated blood transfusions.

Attitudes toward HIV and AIDS are also holdovers from the rule of Saddam Hussein. At that time, people who were discovered to be HIV-positive were virtually imprisoned in a special hospital, along with immediate relatives.

The HIV status of Abbas and his wife was discovered during routine exams, and they were held in the hospital for nearly nine years, Abbas’s sister said. They did, however, receive treatment during that time.

His relatives acted as though he and his wife were dead all that time, the sister said. They didn’t want to know how they were doing, did not even want to hear their names. The sister had been the only one of seven siblings who would even speak to Farid.

The sister helped the couple and their son find a place to live, next door to her, when they finally got out of the hospital at the start of the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Discrimination spreading

The couple was not the first in Iraq to be murdered because of their HIV status. In January and February, two other men were killed under similar circumstances, according to the press office of the Iraqi Aid Association for Chronic Patients (IAACP), a local nongovernmental organisation.

The IAACP has also seen an increase in general discrimination toward people who are HIV-positive.

“Deplorably, Iraqis have very low public awareness concerning HIV infection,” Youssera Ibrahim, spokesperson for the IAACP, said. “They still believe the last regime’s ideology that such carriers are dogs with rabies and should be excluded from the society.”

Dr Karim al-Mufergi, director of the Iraqi Organisation for Sexual Health and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (IOSH & STD), a local organisation in the capital, said that they have been trying to educate the public about the importance of using preventative measures such as condoms, and to raise awareness that HIV is not spread by a kiss or a hug.

“There are still people who believe that just by being near the patient, they can acquire the disease and become infected,” al-Mufergi said.

Social outcast

Abu Nour, 40, who has AIDS, was attacked by neighbourhood children throwing rocks a few weeks ago. Although he was bleeding profusely from head and arm wounds, no one would help him.

One of his neighbours saw the medicines for AIDS in his house and told all the neighbours.

“Since then, most of the people do not even say good morning to me,” Abu Nour said. “Last week I received a note in my door asking me to leave my house, to prevent me from infecting their children.”

Abu Nour said he contracted HIV from a sex worker, and infected his wife, who died several years ago. Their son, too, died of AIDS. He has tried to educate his neighbours about how HIV is transmitted, but to no avail. “Each day I’m being pressed to leave the only place I have to live,” he said.

Dr Wadah Hamed, director of the AIDS Research Centre (ARC), said about 100 Iraqi patients are receiving treatment at the centre, but there are no reliable statistics about the prevalence of AIDS or HIV.

“Most of our patients have complained of discrimination starting from their relatives,” Hamed said. “There are cases in which their own sons have rejected them after learning that they were infected.”

Source: IRIN

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