Wednesday, July 31, 2002

New AIDS clinic promises anonymity

Daily Star - Beirut, Lebanon

With the opening of the country’s first Voluntary Anonymous Testing Unit Tuesday, people who suspect they are HIV-positive can now be tested free of charge and in total secrecy.

In addition to facilitating the testing process for people, the unit, which the Lebanese AIDS Society (LAS) set up at Baabda Governmental Hospital, is expected to yield more accurate figures on the number of citizens with the deadly virus.

“This step will allow the (Health) Ministry to know the extent of the (AIDS) problem. How can we solve a problem if we don’t know how big it is?” asked Walid Ammar, the ministry’s director-general during a news conference Tuesday.

As far as the government and doctors know, there have been 650 AIDS victims here since the first infection was discovered in 1984, while around 150 AIDS carriers are currently undergoing treatment with the government’s National AIDS Prevention Program.

Each year, an average of 40 people contract the virus, which cripples the immune system. But officials and medics alike say there are more than the known AIDS victims, claiming many people have chosen not to be tested to avoid public exposure, while others who are infected continue to hide their condition in order to avoid social alienation.
“Many laboratories require a patient’s ID card or a doctor’s test order to carry out an HIV test. This discourages people from taking the test,” said LAS founder Jacques Mokhbat.

At the Voluntary Anonymous Testing Unit (VATU), patients need only provide their age, sex and nationality ­ which Mokhbat said are required “for statistical purposes.” They are then given a case number, which they use to retrieve their test results, no questions asked.
People who test positive are immediately referred to a doctor, where they are offered a cocktail of medications, used to slow the replication of the virus, and which is free for patients.

“Lebanon was one of the first countries in 1996 to enlist in the global campaign to combat AIDS and to administer this medication to its citizens,” said LAS president Abdel-Rahman Bizri.

In addition to announcing the opening of the VATU, Tuesday’s news conference was also held to launch LAS’s new website, which is the first in the Middle East to be dedicated to AIDS awareness. The site responds to public queries, offers links to international sites on AIDS and provides answers to frequently asked questions such as how the AIDS virus is transmitted and what can be done to avoid contracting HIV.

“In providing information about AIDS to the public, the society is also likely to gain some beneficial information on the concerns of people who visit the site,” said Mahmoud Shuqair, president of the Order of Physicians.

Although Lebanon’s AIDS victims are relatively few compared to those in other developing countries, there is cause for worry, said Bizri, who added: “Our country is still in danger of joining the global spread of AIDS.”

The LAS website is available at