Newly-installed International AIDS Society President Chris Beyrer. Photo Credit: International AIDS Society/Steve Forrest.

[Ed. Note — Contributor Michael Harney is writing to us from the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. This is his sixth and final contribution from the conference held this week. See all other updates from Harney here.]

MELBOURNE, Australia — The XX International AIDS Conference ended on Friday, July 25, but before the Rapporteur Session reviewing the week’s highlights was held, an impressive panel discussion occurred about HIV/AIDS in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It was moderated by Dr. Arash Alaei, an Iranian-born researcher who in 2008, along with his brother Kamiar, was arrested and sent to prison in Iran for his work on harm reduction and needle exchange related to HIV in that country. The brothers became the focus of international protest and advocacy, and in 2012, having earlier been released, received the first Elizabeth Taylor Award for human rights advocacy at the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. Dr. Arash Araei now lives and works in New York State.

Epidemiological data from the 24 countries of the MENA region, though minimal, indicate low HIV/AIDS prevalence, which panel members attributed to cultural and behavioral norms. But now there is an emerging epidemic, they said, due to low government and community support for HIV testing, as well as failure to implement mother-to-child transmission protocols, and religious and social restrictions regarding men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, female sex workers, and people living with HIV and AIDS.

Stigma, discrimination, and criminalization are the leading barriers impeding progress against the epidemic for the 750 million people of the MENA region, exacerbated by deteriorating security, political, and socioeconomic conditions, as “the Arab Spring has turned into Winter”, in the words of one presenter. In addition, some faith-based leaders who have great power often don’t have scientific knowledge about HIV. Efforts to include them in the dialogue with civil society have had some limited success, and are continuing.

There are willing work partners and international donors who would like to see relationships grow among HIV/AIDS researchers and MENA countries. In the U.S., such efforts are underway in Michigan and California. The Carolina Center for the Middle East and Muslim Civilization at UNC is a potential partner as well.

Some women in the audience questioned why a panel considering issues of women’s empowerment lacked female representation. In fairness, several knowledgeable women had been invited as panelists, including Queen Rania of Jordan. However, none was able to make it to the conference this year. Dr. Alaei stated that he will assure inclusion of female experts at next year’s International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2016.

At the closing ceremony, Dr. Chris Beyrer, the first openly gay man to be the president of the International AIDS Society (IAS), formally assumed office, and his role as Durban conference co-chair, promising to redouble efforts along the road to Step Up The Pace and Leave No One Behind — the themes and legacy of AIDS 2014, Melbourne.

Michael Harney is an educator with WNCAP (Western North Carolina AIDS Project), an HIV/AIDS advocate and supporter of Needle Exchange programs. He occasionally contributes his writings on various subjects...