16 December 2007

Gaps in knowledge put Arabs at risk with HIV

December 15 - 28, 2007
Issue 38

In a recent study entitled Break the Silence: HIV/AIDS Knowledge, Attitudes, and Educational Needs among Arab University Students in UAE, three medical students Fatima Alfaresi, Shamma Almazrouei, and Amal Muraddad, together with their faculty advisors Dr. Peter Barss, Associate Professor of the Department of Community Medicine of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Dr. Maria Ganczak and Dr. Fatma Al-Maskari found ‘alarming gaps in knowledge’ about HIV and AIDS among young Arab students of UAE University.

“The students had probably not had sufficient and effective teaching about HIV/AIDS. Some thought that being in the same room with a person with HIV, eating the same food, or having a mosquito bite could make them catch the disease,” recalled Dr. Barss. “We do not know the reason for this lapse. It could be cultural or, as in many countries, reluctance to report details about diseases that might affect tourism.”

Adapting a World Health Organisation Cross-National Study questionnaire, the researchers also learned that among the 5280 first year students of the UAE University they sampled in their survey, only a third knew that there is neither vaccine nor cure for HIV and AIDS. Relationships with PLH (People Living with HIV) were also dreaded, with some 53% wanting the patients to live apart from them.

Some 57% of the respondents, on the other hand, believed that teaching about these diseases in schools was inadequate, so they relied upon the media who sometimes give out ‘conflicting coverage of AIDS research,’ resulting in more muddled minds.

“The media may not be very effective in teaching younger people. They should focus on the major shortcomings that lead to increased risk of infection and to irrational fear of persons with HIV and AIDS, and assess their readers or audiences as to whether the information provided has been effective.”

Doing something

While testing for HIV for all foreign workers and marrying couples is mandatory and religion prevents others from having premarital and extramarital relationships, there is still a need for further education and training. “We thought that better knowledge about HIV and AIDS could improve knowledge for self protection, diminish fear about being around people with the disease, and make young adults more compassionate and caring towards those who suffer from this illness,” Dr. Barss added as he explained the interventional study they later conducted involving some 2000 Grade 12 students in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi in collaboration with Dr. Michal Grivna and several teams of medical students.

“The first study we did allowed us to actually do something, and that is to give the students interactive workshops modeled on those developed by the World Health Organisation. High school students tend to be more responsive to close interactive communication rather than teaching with fancy slides.”

The UAE government is also increasing support for awareness campaigns on HIV and AIDS. “After we did our initial survey and then the intervention study, the government was actually interested to augment our efforts. One of our former colleagues, Dr Jamal Al Mutawa, now with the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi, has worked closely with a committee that will provide a comprehensive program for prevention and management of AIDS in the UAE. Other branches of the government are involved too. Hopefully, based on the results of the research, educational programs for HIV in schools will be improved.”

Dr. Barss also suggested considering an organization for the PLH. “I suppose there could be a way of having some sort of group for people who know that they are HIV+ so that they can choose a spouse within that group. The young patients may want still to have a home, a partner, since most will live many years with the infection. So how do you deal with that without spreading the infection?”

Currently, the prevalence of AIDS has increased since 1990 in the Arab region, with over half a million Arabs plagued with AIDS and about 68,000 newly infected with HIV. In the UAE, the Health Ministry has identified 466 local patients, and has deported foreign workers with HIV and AIDS.

What is HIV and what is AIDS

“HIV is a virus. It is a very small, invisible particle found in the body. One can get infected with HIV and not know it. The infected person may not even get sick at all for years. But, at some point, the virus may proliferate and harm a person’s immunity or resistance to other infections, making the individual prone to other diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and others. HIV, by itself, does not get us sick until it harms our organs and allows us to be attacked by bacteria or other microbes. When it does, only then does the person become sick with AIDS.”

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