07 August 2008

Youth-in-Asia (AIDS epidemic in Afghanistan)

A "Shooting Gallery" in Kabul, Afghanistan (picture from NY Times)

Approximately 25 years ago, when AIDS was misunderstood and dubbed the "gay plague", an International AIDS Conference in Mexico City is taking place which the Washington Post discusses. The article mostly focuses on how homosexual men are more prone to spreading the terrible disease, and while that is a horrible crisis for the gay community, they don't talk about where new cases of HIV are spreading the most rapidly: Central Asia. The director of UNAIDS discusses this in an interview with Radio Free Europe, and he mentions that the regimes of Central Asia are totally unequipped to deal with the epidemic.

The NY Times wrote an article more than a year ago discussing how returning refugees may have brought the disease into the country, which had been essentially isolated during the 80s and the Taliban years. Now, the Chicago Tribune states that the crisis might be a huge problem for the young government:

AIDS now is a test for the government of President Hamid Karzai, caught between Western backers and conservative clerics, many of whom believe AIDS victims deserve their fate.

"You see where Afghanistan is going," said Dr. Saif-ur-Rehman, director of the National HIV/AIDS Control Program in the Health Ministry. "How do we tackle this problem before it turns into a major fire, an epidemic?"

Although there were cases of HIV before in Afghanistan — the first was registered in 1989 — only a handful were identified. The Taliban health minister insisted in 1998 that there was no AIDS in Afghanistan, because it was against Islam.

But after the Taliban fled, refugees addicted to heroin and opium returned from Iran and Pakistan, some bringing HIV with them. More and more Afghans who never left the country are now using drugs and injecting them as the heroin trade booms in the post-Taliban era.

With a booming poppy trade, overwhelming poverty, and a conservative culture that doesn't properly acknowledge of the AIDS scourge, NGOs and humanitarian organizations would be wise to work with the Afghan government to address this problem. Currently, there isn't even reliable data on those suffering, and this would be an appropriate method of applying soft power.