By Mohand Ouali
Over 600 new cases of AIDS were recorded during the first nine months of 2010 in Algeria, where the disease has spread relentlessly since the outbreak began in 1985.
“According to the likeliest estimates, there are between 21,000 and 30,000 people living with the virus,” Dr Skander Abdelkader Soufi announced November 24th at an Algiers forum on HIV/AIDS.
“This gives us an idea of the danger and the work that remains to be done,” said Soufi, who runs AIDS prevention NGO ANIS.
To coincide with World Aids Day, a global awareness effort launched by the World Health Organisation in 1988, ANIS chose Wednesday (December 1st) as the launch date for Algeria’s own AIDS awareness campaign.
The national kick-off for Himaya (Protection) is set for Ghardaia. The year-long initiative will be promoted by two high-profile women: former culture minister Zahia Benarous and singer Amel Wahbi.
ANIS recently conducted an awareness caravan about sexually transmitted diseases, called “Holidays Without AIDS”, which travelled the beaches most frequented by tourists.
Women and children are on the front line of the epidemic, Dr Soufi warned. He estimates that between 6,000 and 12,000 women in Algeria are infected with the disease.
“All organisations operating in the fields of healthcare and mother-and-child protection have been urged to join forces with us in this awareness-raising campaign”, he said, explaining that this segment of the population has limited access to information.
Soufi believes that just 8% of women living with AIDS have access to mother-to-child HIV transmission prevention services but most women are not aware that such services exist.
In its 2010 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) classified Algeria as a country with a low-level epidemic and an HIV prevalence of around 0.1%. The number of people undergoing antiretroviral therapy rose to 1,526 at the end of 2009, 51% of whom were men. The report also noted that all donated blood is screened in Algeria.
Algeria boasts 61 anonymous and free screening centres, which are spread across all provinces of the country, as well as a National Blood Agency and eight referral centres that treat people with HIV/AIDS. The report also underlined the commitment shown by the Algerian government, which provides antiretroviral drugs free of charge.
However, there are still gaps in the provision of treatment for sufferers, and the availability of medicine is not always guaranteed. Patients also have difficulty obtaining reimbursements for medicines to treat secondary illnesses. ANIS recommended that the labour ministry classify AIDS as a chronic illness, which would make sufferers eligible for welfare assistance.
In addition, the government has taken a number of steps to combat the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STI). It developed a National Strategic Plan for the fight against STI-HIV-AIDS (2008-2012) and set up a network for disease detection and controlling blood quality.
Professor Mehdi Youcef, Mustapha-Pacha hospital chief and the health ministry’s AIDS liaison, recently declared that Algeria is the first country in the region to grant all AIDS patients access to antiretroviral drugs “for free”.
“Algeria should be proud of what it has achieved in this field,” Youcef said, noting the country has provided care throughout the country through treatment centres specifically for AIDS.
A number of civil society groups remain actively involved in the fight against AIDS, including the Algerian Red Crescent and the Association for Information About Drugs and AIDS (AIDS Algeria). AIDS Algeria has organised campaigns in Tamanrasset and in Oran, where they helped educate women on modes of transmission.