Reham al-Hakami while in hospital recently. (Photo courtesy Saudi Gazette)
Here is a quick translation of my column that appeared today (March 08, 2013) in Portuguese in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo:
Jeddah, the most liberal city Saudi accounts for 15% of all AIDS cases in the country
ARTICLE - RASHEED ABOUALSAMH
A girl of 12 years, an iPad and a blood transfusion tainted with HIV were the ingredients for the latest scandal rocking Saudi Arabia. The girl in question, Reham al-Hakami, suffers from sickle cell anemia, blood transfusions needed doing to control her disease. Last month she was admitted to a public hospital in the city of Jizan it, and it was there that she received a dose of contaminated blood after it was not screened correctly. Hours after Reham returned home after the transfusion, hospital doctors realized the mistake and went to her home to inform her parents what had happened. The Ministry of Health took action quickly, transferring the girl to the best hospital in the capital, Riyadh, where she began to be treated with antiviral medication. Several doctors and lab technicians responsible in Jizan hospital were dismissed and had their licenses revoked.
Days after she arrived in Riyadh, the Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabiah, visited her in the hospital and gave her a new iPad as a gift, loaded with games and recordings of the Holy Qur'an. As soon as the news was released, a veritable flood of criticism took over Twitter, with many Saudis calling for the minister to resign. "Hi, sorry for what happened, so take this iPad and download some apps while you wait to die," was twitted by multiple users, shocked by the attitude of the minister. Daoud al-Sharian, a famous television presenter, asked the minister to resign. "I expected at least this one time a minister would resign because of the mistakes of his ministry," said Sharian on his TV show that had the father and uncle of Reham as his guests.
Minister Rabiah responded by saying he did what any father would do when visiting a daughter in the hospital: "I could not arrive empty-handed and my advisers had told me that she wanted to listen to the Qur'an, so I thought of bringing her an iPad."
The family of Reham has now filed a lawsuit against the health authorities, requesting damages of $13 million. Reham has now become the poster child for HIV carriers in the conservative kingdom, where Muslim men can marry up to four women at once - and where condoms are sold openly on the counters of pharmacies - but where having and talking about a sexually active life is not allowed nor considered to be in good taste.
AIDS and HIV already form grounds for much shame in a society where sex before marriage is forbidden, and where homosexuality is illegal and can be punished by flogging and imprisonment. But the Saudi government finally realized in the 1990s that the disease could not be ignored, and that, like it or not, Saudis and foreigners living in the country were having sex in different ways, and sometimes becoming infected with the virus. This does not mean, in any way, that the Saudis have adopted awareness programs such as those in Brazil, where the government encourages the use of condoms. But nowadays any Saudi infected with HIV receives treatment for free from the government. Foreigners who become infected are less fortunate: they are isolated in special clinics and receive only topical remedies to treat the symptoms of pain and fever, and not the cause. They are usually deported to their country of origin. Officials have defended this position by saying that long-term care is the responsibility of countries of origin of foreigners who come to work in the kingdom as guests with two-year contracts, and thus are not treated as immigrants.
The Saudi government reported 10 million cases of HIV/AIDS since 1986, of which 23% were Saudis. The city of Jeddah, the most liberal in the country, accounted for 15% of all cases. The UN Development Programme estimates that 78.4% of Saudis victims contracted the disease through sexual intercourse, and 21.6% of the victims were infected during blood transfusions or sharing contaminated syringes. Almost 80% of victims are aged 15 to 49 years.
Many Saudi women are infected by their husbands, who bring HIV home after traveling to Beirut and Bangkok and visiting prostitutes there. The Saudi husband of a former colleague of mine became ill with the virus, and she only learned about it after a nurse took pity on her and told her the truth. My own janitor who was cleaning my flat and of others in Jeddah, but who worked in a food factory, frequented cheap prostitutes and contracted the disease. The fact that he was HIV positive was discovered during a routine blood test, and he was detained in a clinic for people like him. After several weeks, was deported to Bangladesh, where he called to tell me his sad story. He told me he had no money to buy medication, and I thought that the government of his country also didn't have the ability to do so. I sent some money to him, but knew it would not last long.
In this global fight against AIDS, governments should realize that it is impossible to monitor and control the sex lives of its citizens. What can be done is to talk about the disease and how it is transmitted; teach ways to avoid contamination - whose main method has been the use of condoms - and combat discrimination against people with the disease. Governments in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, would do good if they followed these points. With over half a million people living with the HIV virus in the Arab world, ignoring the presence of the virus is not a good strategy to confront one of the most perplexing diseases that mankind has ever seen.
Rasheed Aboualsamh is a journalist