The rape of a French-Swiss teenage boy in Dubai by two men, one of them infected with HIV, has raised questions over the United Arab Emirate's policy of dealing with a topic still taboo in this socially conservative country.
A Dubai court on December 12 sentenced each UAE national to 15 years in jail for raping the 15-year-old last July.
AdvertisementA third suspect in the case, a minor, is being tried by a juvenile court. His trial is due to resume on December 25.
For the victim's mother, Veronique Robert, a journalist, the fact that the family was only informed weeks after the attack that one of the three suspects was HIV-positive -- the virus that can lead to AIDS -- is central to the case.
Officially, the UAE does not provide the World Health Organisation (WHO) with any figures on AIDS. A WHO report released on December 1 on the occasion of the World AIDS Day said figures on estimated HIV prevalence among the UAE adult population were not available.
"We have no idea," about the spread of AIDS in the UAE, said physician Hani Ziady, a medical officer at the Cairo-based WHO Eastern Mediterranean regional programme for AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
But the under-secretary of the UAE's health ministry, Abdul Ghaffar al-Ghafoor, was quoted in the English-language Khaleej Times on December 10 as saying that 734 Emirati nationals were HIV-positive.
On the face of it, foreigners, who account for around 80 percent of a total UAE population of over four million people, should be HIV-negative as they are subjected to blood tests before being granted residency permits.
Any foreigner found to be infected would be immediately deported, said a UAE medical source.
But Dubai, one of the seven states making up the UAE federation, is fast becoming a tourist hub and the millions of travellers who visit the emirates every year do not have to go through the blood tests.
When asked how the UAE was trying to curb infection, Nada al-Marzouqi, the manager of the National HIV/AIDS Programme at the health ministry, told AFP: "We do register cases (of infected people), so we would be able to follow them up and advise them further on treatment and prevention methods."
But the fact that the authorities in the recent rape case failed to disclose to the family that a suspect was HIV-positive has also raised questions. The boy's family learnt this only six weeks after the rape, and through its lawyer.
A medical source familiar with the case stressed to AFP the medical basis "to examine rape victims instantly."
"The victim could have been given treatment, which is 90 percent effective within 24 hours, to stop the virus from reaching the cells," said the source, who requested anonymity.
The victim's mother has publicised her son's case through a website she launched in October to muster support for her demand that the UAE set up a specialized centre to treat rape victims.
Marzouqi said that the health ministry AIDS/HIV prevention programme does "some counselling to the newly diagnosed cases, especially regarding how to prevent the transmission of HIV to others and how to protect the community from further infections."
But openly discussing ways to protect the population from the spread of HIV is not easy in such a conservative society.
"The problem is that AIDS remains a social taboo. Everything is hidden and is not discussed," said the same Dubai-based medical source, complaining that "social and religious barriers complicate the matter in spreading awareness, not only in the UAE, but also across the region."