The AIDS 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna Austria is in full swing right now. In addition to highlighting successes in the struggle against HIV, conference participants also point out those things that are sorely lacking in the ongoing fight against HIV and AIDS:
— effective approaches to dealing with deadly tuberculosis and HIV co-infection
— sufficient funding for provision of antiretroviral drugs for all of those who need them
— the political will to substantively address the role that gender inequality plays in perpetuating the HIV epidemic, and
— the political fortitude to demand HIV prevention strategies that are appropriate for concentrated epidemic settings, where HIV infection is most prevalent among intravenous drug users, sex workers, and men who have sex with other men.
Something else critically important is missing from the world’s arsenal in its ongoing battle against HIV and AIDS: two doctors specializing in prevention and treatment of HIV, brothers by the name of Kamiar and Arash Alaei. They, along with too many others that we know, are currently being held in the prisons of the Islamic Republic of Iran after a one-day closed court hearing and coerced confessions obtained during their detention in the notorious section 209 of Evin Prison. Detained for 6 months without charges, they were ultimately sentenced to 3 and 6 years’ imprisonment, respectively, on baseless charges of acting against national interests, also known as plotting velvet revolution, the Islamic regime’s favorite paranoia and commonest excuse for detaining and torturing political prisoners.
The Alaei brothers have been instrumental in fighting the spread of the HIV epidemic, not only in their home country of Iran, but throughout the Middle East region. They are renowned for their work in HIV prevention as well as for their approach to caregiving for their HIV-positive patients. They have trained health workers throughout the region on prevention and treatment of the disease, particularly in concentrated epidemics like Iran’s, and they are responsible for elevating Iran’s national HIV program to a level of international regard.
Iran’s epidemic is largely related to intravenous drug use; thus, the Alaei brothers focused with considerable success on harm reduction strategies for this population: helping them protect themselves and others through interventions like needle-exchange programs. Kamiar and Arash have been credited with getting the Islamic Republic to address the stigma of HIV infection and AIDS in a country where egaging in the wrong kind of sex and using drugs are not only taboo but can result in an execution sentence.
Along with his brother Arash, who is also a doctor, Kamiar is on a personal mission to help the growing number of HIV/AIDS patients in Iran… Dr. Arash Alaei runs a clinic in Tehran, where he caters for the growing number of drug addicts and prostitutes who are infected with the virus. It takes him to parts of Iran which are never seen in the west, where junkies sprawl on streets littered with needles.
Much of his work is done for free, and it has been recognised in the US, Thailand and throughout Europe. Institutions such as the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS have praised him for bringing to light a largely hidden problem.
— BBC News, 16 June 2004: Tackling Iran’s heroin habit
Both drug addiction and HIV are on the rise in Iran; approximately 1.2 million of Iran’s 70 million residents are drug-dependent, and HIV incidence is both increasing and the form of the epidemic seems to be changing to a low-level generalized epidemic. The world’s foremost HIV experts are meeting in the largest conference of its kind RIGHT NOW. There is no better time to act in support of Arash and Kamiar Alaei:
1) Write a letter to Michele Sidibe, head of UNAIDS, and ask him to ensure that the Alaei brothers are remembered in the closing remarks of the AIDS 2010 conference, and ask him to demand the immediate release of Arash and Kumiar Alaei. Sample letter:
Dear Dr. Sidibe,
I am writing to you with regard to Drs. Arash and Kumiar Alaei, two physicians who have dedicated their lives to the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS in their home country of Iran. The Islamic Republic has imprisoned them on baseless political charges, and they have been in prison for two years now, away from a community that needs them very much.
In order to recognize their contributions to the field of HIV and AIDS, to remind the world that we have not forgotten our colleagues who are now political prisoners, and to demand their immediate and unconditional freedom, I ask that you ensure that the Alaeis are publicly remembered during the closing session of the year’s AIDS 2010 conference in Vienna. These two caring and beloved doctors deserve no less.
2) Sign the petition at iranfreethedocs.com.
Fast Facts on HIV in Iran:
— Iran’s health ministry reports that at least 19,435 Iranians are infected with HIV virus, with more than 1,000 new cases recorded since December 2008. However, these numbers are believed to be one quarter of the true size of the epidemic in Iran, estimated to be about 80,000.
— 93 percent of all cases are believed to be men.
— Intravenous drug use is the most common mode of transmission (78 percent of cases).
— There is concern that Iran’s concentrated epidemic could become generalized given the young age structure of the population.
— Of those infected, 1,875 are already confirmed as having AIDS.