Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kurdish policy on HIV must change

By Judit Neurink
The Kurdish Globe
It's past time to banish Kurdistan's discriminatory HIV/AIDS policy

Kurdistan must follow the American example and change its policy on HIV and foreigners. The Kurdish policy is baseless, senseless, and wrong.

The United States has started 2010 with an important measure. The country is no longer banning foreigners who are infected with HIV or suffering from aids. Travelers to the U.S. will no longer be asked to present a clean bill of health when they enter the country. When he announced the change, U.S. President Barack Obama said that the ban was "rooted in fear rather than fact." Others say the lifting was long overdue.

Now 11 countries are left that ban travelers with AIDS and HIV. Among them are Saudi Arabia and Libya--and Iraq. Bans like this are discriminatory, do not work, and with the present state of medicine, are no longer necessary. So following the American example, Iraq has to change its policy towards HIV. And if the Iraqi government in Baghdad does not take the step, Kurdistan has to do this unilaterally.

Travelers to Kurdistan can move around the region on a 10-day entry visa. But after 10 days, they have to undergo a blood test for HIV to be allowed to stay on. Let me explain why this policy must be changed as soon as possible.

First, the policy is discriminatory, as it only hits foreigners. Hardly any Kurds are tested. For foreign aid workers, teachers, and others coming to support the Kurds, it is a slap in the face, as it suggests they have loose morals. For tourists it is a bad measure because of the time and the money involved. Some of my trainers already have told me they will not stay longer than 10 days because of the blood test. This means the measure could cost the Kurds income and support.

Second, the policy is in conflict with the doctor-patient relationship, which protects the patient's medical information. Details of medical health are private, and a State should not force anyone to disclose it.

Third, the policy does not work. It is pointed at the wrong group. HIV is transmitted by blood-blood and blood-sperm contact. Most travelers will not have sexual relations with Kurds, nor will they transmit the decease by blood transfusions. Perhaps they will share a needle with a Kurdish drug addict, but the chances of that happening are quite slim.

Fourth, the group that needs to be at the heart of the policy is left out. By not testing Kurds, the disease can be passed on without anyone noticing. A lorry driver working in the border area who has a girlfriend in Turkey, Iran, or anywhere else can bring the disease home. The same goes for a Kurd who travels to Europe. He will infect his wife, who might have a sexual relationship and transmit the infection to her partner, who in turn infects his wife, and so on.

Fifth, the policy gives Kurds a false sense of safety. Instead of informing them how HIV is transmitted, the government tells them it has taken the danger away by catching infected foreigners. It might be a tough message in a conservative country, but the government needs to be clear. It has to tell its people that to stay clean of HIV, safe sex and condoms are a must. And that if they have unsafe sex, they should let themselves be tested.

Last, and most importantly, the time of fearing HIV and AIDS is over. Medication is so good nowadays that patients who have been detected in an early phase of the illness no longer die and can live an almost normal life.

Kurdistan must finally enter modern times. It must take away the taboo associated with HIV and AIDS. It must educate its people in an honest and fair way about the disease. It must give its hospital staff all the information and medication it needs to treat HIV. It must follow the example of the U.S. and end the compulsory blood test for travelers.

Judit Neurink is a journalist in the Netherlands and director of the Independent Media Centre in Kurdistan