MENA region ranks lowest in HIV treatment coverage

In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that around 35 million people worldwide are living with HIV. The North Africa and Middle East region (MENA) was home to around 347,000 infected people. It also had the worst treatment coverage in the world.

The burden of HIV is increasing dramatically in the region, even though new infections are dropping almost everywhere else in the world. New infections have risen by more than 124% from 2001 to 2012. This is accompanied by poor treatment coverage, as only 14% of treatment-eligible people in the region receive antiretroviral therapy (ART), the therapy essential in prolonging the lives of people who carry the virus.

The reasons for the low treatment coverage vary – from poor access to HIV testing, counseling and treatment to the prevalent stigma and negative attitudes towards people living with HIV ­­– even from healthcare providers.

An advocacy document consolidated by WHO and UNAIDS titled, Accelerating HIV Treatment in the WHO Eastern Mediterranean and UNAIDS Middle East and North Africa Regions discussed the recommended actions to increase the treatment coverage across the region with the help of policymakers, civil society, the private sector and religious leaders.

The report recommends encouraging people to take HIV tests by addressing discrimination against people living with HIV, and fighting the stigma in the minds of healthcare providers, public health authorities and the public. It calls for normalizing HIV testing in healthcare systems by offering it on a routine basis.

Reducing the cost of ART, building healthcare capacity to ensure long term chronic HIV care, and adopting simplified and standardized ART regimens are also highly recommended actions to ensure increasing access to HIV treatment across the region.

People living with HIV can lead a normal life if they had easy access to testing, treatment and proper healthcare, without the fear of discrimination and lifelong stigma for them, their families and loved ones.