With World AIDS Day on December 1, the state and NGOs are teaming up to put HIV/AIDS on the national agenda.

Originally appeared in the December, 2006 issue of Egypt Today.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Egypt is reported to have the highest prevalence of hepatitis C in the world. In 2005, WHO counted 5,300 reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Egypt, a number that may not seem that staggering for a population now thought to be hovering around 80 million. But thinking ahead to the consequences and the methods of contraction, it’s an issue that deserves attention.

The impact is significant: A 2003 WHO report estimated that Egypt’s gross domestic product could drop more than 40 percent by 2025 if the growth of HIV/AIDS cases continued at a steady rate. But local economists aren’t the only ones concerned: Several organizations spent last month trying to find solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in anticipation of World AIDS Day, December 1.

UNICEF launched its Unite for Children program in Cairo on November 26 to raise awareness of the threat HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C pose to children in Egypt. UNICEF wanted to clear up the confusion many have concerning how HIV/AIDS is contracted. Although needle drug abuse and sexual promiscuity are the most well-known methods of contraction, in Egypt the disease is most commonly spread through blood transfusions, marital relations and by mothers to their children during pregnancy or nursing.

“We’re not trying to be judgmental; there are other ways to contract the disease,” says UNICEF Communications Officer Simon Ingram. “We want to enable people to protect themselves, regardless.”

Targeting Egypt’s youth, UNICEF signed on celebrities including Al-Ahly soccer club captain Mahmoud El-Khateeb and actors Laila Elwi and Yehia El-Fakharany.

The campaign also targets the media. “A lot of the information coming from the media is unnecessarily alarmist,” says Ingram. “They spread misconceptions and crazy notions about the diseases, but we believe the media can be vital allies in getting the facts out about the illnesses.”

The UNICEF campaign also plans on setting up counseling and testing centers and hotlines where Egyptians can confidentially get info regarding HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

On another front, the United Nations Development Program’s HIV/AIDS Regional Program in the Arab States (HARPAS) held its second annual leaders forum, appealing to religious leaders to help promote awareness. Held November 6–9, the unique gathering of 250 male and female religious leaders from Muslim and Christian communities launched Chahama (derived from the Arabic word for ‘chivalry’), a cooperation pact to further spread HIV/AIDS education and understanding through support and outreach programs.

Sheikh Sayed Sabbah, an imam at Salah Al-Din Mosque in Manial, explains. “AIDS is not a punishment from God, it is a test. It says in the Qur’an when God loves someone, he tests them more.”

Salwa Girgis, a Christian community leader and Leaders Forum participant, wants to get another message across — that it’s OK to talk about HIV/AIDS. “The nation does not speak boldly,” she says. “We are not an open people about AIDS. Conferences like this can enlighten us and then it won’t be embarrassing to speak of such topics.”

Both leaders emphasize that it is not enough to simply preach tolerance in mosques and churches. Girgis suggests that lectures be used to educate people outside the religious setting, and Sabbah is in favor of workshops for imams to help them spread the word to their communities.

The conference produced the Cairo Declaration of Religious Leaders in the Arab States in Response to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic, a document outlining the steps needed to spread better understanding of the disease.

“Lots of myths and misconceptions are related to HIV/AIDS, and that’s why you should face it through a multi-stakeholders approach,” says Dr. Ehab El-Kharrat, HARPAS regional program consultant and senior technical adviser.

One misconception is that HIV/AIDS is less of a problem in Egypt because of the lower number of reported case: “It is not about numbers,” El-Kharrat warns. “In South Africa up until 1987 the reported cases were around 800, and then it blew up. We have to understand that reported cases or discovered cases, no matter how [few] they are, are significant.”