TRIPOLI, Libya (PANA)–When he came home after a long day’s work, Mokhtar was embarrassed when confronted with two unexpected questions from his nine-year-old daughter Zeina, a fourth grade pupil.
“Tell me Daddy, what is AIDS? What does illicit sexual relations mean?”
Mokhtar, who had so far managed to avoid discussing certain aspects of adult life with children, was speechless for a while, then acted as if he had not heard the questions. But he had to face reality, as he saw his daughter holding a leaflet on AIDS.
So he tried to explain to her that AIDS was “a very dangerous disease because it has no cure.”
The Africa International School, where Zeina is enrolled, had distributed the leaflets to pupils as part of a national week against AIDS, organized by the Libyan National AIDS and STI Control Center. The leaflets warn against HIV/AIDS and calls on Libyan children, youths and adults to avoid illicit sexual relations, avoid friendship with drug addicts, follow the straight path and stay away from sin.
The leaflets are distributed to primary school pupils as well as students in the civil service and in mosques. They stress that the disease is not transmitted through physical contact, sharing of a public bath, toilets, transport, family environment, workplace, or using public telephones, among others.
This year, Libyan authorities seem to have wanted to give a new dimension to their national AIDS control programme. Libyan television was the first in the Arab world to publicly announce in 1984 the propagation of the disease, which had long remained a taboo in Arab media and society.
However, this year’s programme was beefed up through the continuous spread of the pandemic, which has gained ground by last year, according to official figures from the Libyan National AIDS Control Committee (NACC).
The first case of AIDS in Libya was reported in 1981. And Libyan television discussed the issue for the first time three years later.
In a report published in December 2000, the NACC said there were 1,852 AIDS cases in Libya. The 2001 report said there were 319 new cases, but about 100 of which were foreign nationals living in Libya.
However, the statistics do not take into account illegal immigrants, who do not report to health authorities for their resident’s cards.
According to the NACC, the 2002 report, which has not been completed yet, also includes new cases. The organizers of the national AIDS control week said Libyan authorities have decided to increase the network of screening units across the country from its current total of 58.
They are also planning to multiply sensitization programs in schools, mosques, universities and streets, as well as radio and television programs. Experts from the World Health Organization visited Libya this year to help their Libyan counterparts assess the evolution of the HIV/AIDS situation in the country.
“I welcome the distribution of leaflets to children. But I would also have liked to see teachers themselves explain the scourge clearly to their pupils,” said Mohammed Mansour, a 45-year-old trader in Tripoli and a father of five children.
But Khadija Salah Al-Gueryani, a 32-year-old bank employee and mother of two children, says the issue is very delicate. “I do not have the courage to explain what AIDS is to my 10-year-old daughter. However, faced with the scope of the pandemic, I think that schools and families should join efforts to sensitize children.”
Meanwhile, the Libyan Human Rights Federation, which took part in the national AIDS control week, published a statement denouncing all the measures, which negatively affect AIDS patients.
The statement called for the recognition of all the rights of AIDS patients, including their rights to live naturally in a family, and to work and receive health assistance and counselling.
Moreover, a charity association against AIDS was launched in Libya during the AIDS control week. In its first leaflets distributed on the fringe of the special fair held during the AIDS control week, held in the open at Martyrs Square, the federation promised to carry out sensitization campaigns throughout the country.
It is also planning to contribute to national efforts to help AIDS patients and their families, by setting up screen-ing and counselling units all over Libya.
Libyan society is still shocked from the contamin-ation of 400 children in 1998 at the pediatric hospital in Benghazi, about 750 miles east of Tripoli. One doctor and six nurses from Bulgaria plus a Palestinian doctor are still being prosecuted by the Libyan judiciary for allegedly infusing contaminated blood into the Libyan children.
Eight Libyans are also under prosecution for careless-ness in relation to the case, which caused an outcry in Libya. In addition to adult sensitization activities through the media, the campaign for primary school pupils in Libya shows that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is no longer a taboo in the country.
It also shows the resolve of Libyan health authorities to take the bull by the horns in order to protect Libyan society.