Abu Dhabi: The words AIDS and HIV trigger fear, denial, taboo and confusion throughout the Arab nations, but experts from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reveal some disturbing trends which should encourage people and nations to start speaking up.

UNDP reports in 2006 show that the number of AIDS related deaths in the Arab region has increased almost six-fold since 1990 where one new HIV infection occurs every 10 minutes; over half a million people live with AIDS and 68,000 people are newly infected with HIV.

"Till now the Arab World has been considered relatively untouched by HIV/AIDS because people were too scared or confused to discuss the disease; however this is changing; statistics reveal some disturbing trends which if continue, the Arab region will face infection rates of 4% by 2015," said Khadija Moalla, Regional HIV/AIDS Practice Leader in the HIV/AIDS Regional Program in the Arab States (HARPAS), UNDP, at a three-day workshop regarding 'Aids in the Arab World.'

Moalla added that there is necessity to introduce networks, support groups and structures to help educate and support people living with HIV; this can be done through freedom of speech and awareness towards HIV/AIDS through the media; encouraging people to voluntarily test for AIDS to avoid late detection and further complications; encourage countries to introduce rehabilitation centers for drug addicts who are reportedly suffering from HIV through shared needles.

"I am against mandatory testing for HIV/AIDS. I believe this is a violation to human rights and does little to protect one's country from spread of the disease; the best thing to do is to encourage voluntary testing to help people come forward at early stages without fear," said Moalla.

Moalla told Gulf News in an exclusive interview that most women in the Arab World discover they have aids after marriage or even after their husband's die, when it is too late; women are too afraid to admit they carry the disease and remain isolated without any treatment.

She added that 40% of people carrying the virus catch the disease while traveling or already have it and are not frequently tested for it. "Most people living with HIV don't tell people around them and I advise countries to stop discriminating against HIV patients and offering them a hand."

Dr. Ehab El Kharrat, Consultant/Senior Technical Advisor, HARPAS, UNDP agreed with Moalla about mandatory AIDS tests which he claims are not accurate nor beneficial for HIV positive carriers since it takes a few good months to detect the virus in ones body.

"A person may be tested negative but still carry the virus or may carry the virus after being tested. Latest statistics revealed by the Ministry of Health and Central Bank for instance show that 40% of Sri Lanki women who were previously working in the GCC region were infected with AIDS," said Kharrat.

In comparison to the rest of the world, added Kharrat, the Arab World is behind due to not taking the needed medical care. Statistics for 2006 in the Arab World showed that 36,000 people died of HIV of which 11,000 were children, which is three times more than the number of deaths reported in Europe and USA where people take the right medical precautions/treatment immediately after their tests show HIV positive.

Dr. Nabil El Kot, Psychiatrist/Head of Addiction Unit and Consultant HARPAS told Gulf News that aids is a societal challenge. "We should stop discriminating and judging aids carriers and help them out. Doctors and medical facilities need to be ready for HIV carriers. The more we ignore the problem and deny we have it, the worse the situation will get."

Dr. Laila Ishrair, Member of National Aids Committee and Co-ordinator for Aids Prevention Stategy told Gulf News that Qatar is the only country in the GCC region that has started a strategy plan to battle HIV/AIDS.

"We have 282 reported cases in Qatar, this is an estimated indicator, but I'm sure the actual number is much higher. We are trying to build awareness towards HIV/AIDS among religious leaders in the GCC region and are establishing a data base that can enable us to identify risky cases and help them out,"said Ishrair.

Goals of UNDP in the Arab Region

- Emphasising the response to AIDS as one of the most significant developmental and human right's challenges that women face in the Arab Region

- Showing the reasons for the spread of AIDS, and its similarity to the reasons of denying women their rights

- Mobilisation and empowerment of civil society and all women leadership organsations in response to aids

- Emphasising the vital role of international partnerships in response to the challenge of AIDS

- Dealing with cultural and social aspects of the AIDS epidemic and its influence on women and young girls

- Dealing with strategies that involve men in the protection attempts against AIDS and that empower women to put their protection and rights into effect.