Iran’s health minister, Hassan Hashemi, announced some startling statistics in 2013: “There has been a ninefold growth in the number of people with AIDS in the past 11 years,” the newly appointed cabinet member said, “and an 80 percent increase each year.”
This was, Hashemi attested, largely due to the taboo associated with AIDS, fueled by unscientific claims and misinformation. Awareness of the disease was poor, and support unsatisfactory; in fact, 70 percent of those infected didn’t even know they were sick, while those formally diagnosed faced isolation over the disease’s social stigma.
Iran is one of several countries in the Middle East in which the majority of HIV transmission occurs between people who inject drugs, though the number of transmissions through sexual contact has risen.
In spite of these discouraging facts, support for HIV/AIDS in Iran has vastly improved in recent years. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of health facilities offering antiretroviral treatments quadrupled, and over 3,500 people in need received antiretroviral therapy — 10 times the amount treated in 2005.
The improvements, though noteworthy, are less impressive considering newly reported infections still outpaced those being treated as of 2013. This trend points to a larger problem in prevention and understanding, which has been historically hindered by the state. For example, two pioneering AIDS doctors were jailed in 2008, and activists’ educational leaflets banned.
Greater progress has been made recently, especially when it comes to government support: Iran’s response to HIV/AIDS has been praised as one of the most comprehensive in the Middle East, and the nation’s health ministry has set up a website for educational purposes.
The Iranian government now also employs harm reduction programs, including clean needle and syringe distribution, free needle distribution in prisons, and opioid substitution therapy to help minimize the frequency of dangerous and illegal drug injections.
As programs improve, the continuation of comprehensive research and advocacy of AIDS prevention remains key. One of the leading organizations in this area is amfAR, which is accelerating the study and treatment of HIV/AIDS across the globe. The foundation has laid the groundwork for major advancements, and aims to ultimately end the epidemic through innovative research, medical breakthroughs, and the promotion of smart public policy.