The Israel AIDS Task Force is embarking for the first time on an HIV information campaign among asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, in light of the high rates of infection.
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In recent years asylum seekers have constituted at least one quarter of those diagnosed as HIV carriers in Israel. The campaign coincides with World AIDS Day on Tuesday, and is being conducted in cooperation with ASSAF — the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers — and the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
It includes large billboards in areas where asylum seekers live. The first have already been mounted on the walls of the New Central Bus Station complex in Tel Aviv, thanks to the station’s CEO Miki Ziv. The billboards, like the flyers distributed in community centers, address the asylum seekers in Arabic and Tigrinya (a language spoken by many Eritreans) and call on them to be tested and to practice safe sex.
In addition, the ASSAF field volunteers are distributing condoms in these communities. The clinics and the Israel AIDS Task Force have set aside two evenings a week for asylum seekers who are interested in being tested and in receiving advice with the help of interpreters.
According to the figures of the Population and Immigration Registry, there are about 44,600 asylum seekers in Israel, 73 percent of them from Eritrea and 19 percent from Sudan. In the past four years — between 2011 and 2014 — asylum seekers have constituted a significant percentage of those newly diagnosed as HIV carriers.
For example, according to the figures of the National Center for HIV Testing, in 2014, 488 HIV carriers were diagnosed, 118 of them (24 percent) migrants from Eritrea or Sudan. In 2013, 495 were diagnosed, out of which 138 (28 percent) of them were migrants; in 2012, 499 carriers, with 145 (29 percent ) from Eritrea or Sudan, with a similar percentage in 2011 (135 of 463).
According to Dr. Yuval Livnat, executive director of the AIDS Task Force, there are several reasons why asylum seekers account for a high percentage of the carriers.
“They come in the first place from countries where the frequency of HIV in the population is higher. But there are other reasons. Already on the way to Israel some of them passed through torture camps and were infected as a result of rape. When they’ve already arrived here there are additional contributing factors,” explains Livnat.
“They don’t receive medical care because the National Health Insurance Law doesn’t apply to them. So they don’t see family doctors, are not aware, don’t receive care and the level of the virus in their blood increases, and with it the risk of infection rises sharply.”
Livnat said that due to a lack of information in Israel directed at the asylum-seeking community, awareness of the existence of the virus and the disease here is relatively low.
“In focus groups that we held for Eritreans they said that in Eritrea there is far more information and publicity on the subject. Some of them, who arrive after military service, say that even in the army there is greater awareness of the subject and testing is done,” says Livnat.
Their lack of contact with the medical establishment contributes to the spread of the virus. “Many of them say: ‘We haven’t heard about it in Israel, we thought it doesn’t exist here,’” adds Livnat.
Recently there has been evidence of communal mobilization to increase awareness, report officials of the Israel AIDS Task Force. Today the task force itself has two staff members who work directly with the communities, along with other volunteers in the field who disseminate information and means of protection.
About a year ago the Health Ministry launched a program for HIV carriers, among the asylum seekers, which today provides treatment to about 100 carriers. “It’s a welcome initiative,” says Livnat, “but we know that there are more carriers and there is need for a more comprehensive program.”