Characterizing the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa

June 29, 2010

June 2010 - Despite much progress in understanding HIV infectious spread globally, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region stands as the only region where knowledge of the epidemic continues to be very limited, inaccessible, and subject to much controversy. In fact the MENA region is still widely perceived as the anomaly in the HIV/AIDS world map and a real black hole in terms of HIV/AIDS data.

A new World Bank report, Characterizing the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa: Time for Strategic Action, aims at addressing this dearth of strategic information on HIV spread in MENA through a joint effort of the World Bank, the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The report summarizes the findings of the largest scientific study on HIV/AIDS in the history of the MENA region: the Middle East and North Africa HIV/AIDS Epidemiology Synthesis Project (PDF). In fact, it provides the first comprehensive scientific assessment of HIV spread in MENA in the different population groups across the countries of the region.

The findings of this systematic review and analysis of all available biological, behavioral, and contextual data about HIV in MENA were presented at a conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on June 29, organized by the World Bank, UNAIDS, and WHO: ‘Policy Dialogue Towards Achieving Universal Access to HIV Prevention, Treatment, Care and Support in the Middle East and North Africa and Launch of MENA HIV Epidemiological Synthesis Report.

During the launch which was attended by senior officials from UNAIDS, WHO, and the World Bank. Akiko Maeda, Manager for Health, Nutrition and Population Sector in the Human Development Department at the World Bank, said, “This new report provides the scientific evidence establishing the trends and dynamics of the infection in MENA”. Adding “it is based on a literature review and analysis of thousands of widely unrecognized publications, reports, and data sources extracted from the scientific literature or collected from sources at the local, national and regional levels.”

Laith Abu-Raddad, the lead author and Principal Investigator of the scientific study, added: “We are no longer in the dark in terms of HIV spread in MENA. After nearly seven years of research, we have at last a comprehensive view of the status of the epidemic in this region and of the populations and countries most affected by this disease.” “The roadmap for what needs to be addressed in relation to HIV in MENA is now clear in front of us.” Dr. Abu-Raddad is a World Bank Consultant and the Director of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Biomathematics Research Core, and Assistant Professor of Public Health at the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Group, the Weill Cornell Medical College – Qatar, Cornell University.

The findings of the report advocate that policy efforts in MENA should focus HIV response among risk groups, rather than the general population where HIV transmission is very limited. MENA countries urgently need to develop robust surveillance systems to monitor HIV spread among priority populations. Effective and repeated surveillance of priority populations across MENA will be critical for preventing further spread of HIV. HIV response in this region needs to focus where HIV is being transmitted and where the risk behaviors are practiced.