GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Umm Hamdan seemed hesitant when I extended my hand to her, saying, “People who know my condition rarely shake my hand.”
She felt the same about making coffee in her modest house. “I rarely do work that requires the use of my hands, like cooking, but I hug my children and grandchildren,” she said.
With these expressions, Umm Hamdan (a pseudonym) summed up the state of isolation she has been living in and the secret she has been hiding for 16 years. She is just one of the 11 known AIDS patients in the Gaza Strip. She caught the disease from her husband, who got infected while working in Israel. “I found out I had it in 1997, after I got pregnant with my daughter and had breast-fed her. Yet she was tested and I learned she was safe,” she said.
“When I first found out that I was infected with the virus, I broke down and cried. So did my husband. We were afraid for our other children, but after the test we discovered they were fine. My husband died around a year later,” Umm Hamdan recalled.
Umm Hamdan added that she never took any medicine to treat the disease until three years ago. She could not go to the pharmacy to ask for it, and it wasn’t provided to her until a care program for AIDS patients in the West Bank and Gaza Strip began.
“Few of my husband’s relatives know about my disease. Sometimes, I forgive them for being afraid. I do not interact with them much. I am treated unjustly, but I resent my disease being a source of humiliation and pity,” she said.
She recalled the most painful situation she was ever in. “I once went to the pharmacy at a governmental clinic to get medicine. There was a pharmacist who looked disgusted and said in front of everyone that I am infected with AIDS. So I had to shout that I wasn’t sick with AIDS,” she added.
Salem (a pseudonym) became infected with HIV while he was in the Gulf. Upon his return to Gaza four years ago, he fell in love with a girl. The feeling was mutual, but she did not share his illness.
Unlike Umm Hamdan, Salem could not keep the secret to himself because one of his relatives revealed to his family and the people living in the area that he was sick.
Salem told Al-Monitor over the phone, “Nobody had mercy on me. I feel like a social outcast, but despite this, I insist on moving on with my life.”
“I told the girl I love about my disease. She approved and met with the doctors overseeing my condition. Her mother also approved, and we are waiting for our financial situation to get better to tie the knot,” he said.
Majdi Dheir, the attending physician and head of the Gazan Department of Preventive Medicine, said, “The girl came to us, and we explained everything to her. She insists on committing to him. We met her mother, who doesn’t mind, either, but the approval of her guardian is needed as per Sharia.”
He noted that they could have protected sex after marriage, as long as preventive measures are consistently followed to prevent transmission of the virus.
“If he takes the right medicine, and the concentration of the virus in the blood is decreased, the wife can get pregnant and have a healthy child without catching the virus. There are also preventive treatments for the child and mother,” he noted.
AIDS patients are not hazardous
Dheir told Al-Monitor that the first case of AIDS was discovered in the Gaza Strip in 1986. A woman contracted the virus from a blood transfusion during a cesarean delivery.
“We offer full services for AIDS patients, including tests, medicines, consultations and treatment if need be, and we respect the patients’ privacy,” Dheir added. He noted that the department implements a therapeutic protocol that is compliant with international standards.
He stressed that they regularly focus on certain social classes that may be more vulnerable to HIV infection than others, such as drug addicts, homosexuals and people who are in contact with other patients. “Unfortunately, the average citizens do not voluntarily take the HIV test, despite the confidentiality promises made by the department of epidemiology. This means that the actual number of patients may be higher.”
Dheir said that they often recognize patients when they are deported from countries that forbid AIDS patients from residing there, or during the examination of samples from blood donors.
“AIDS patients can live with HIV as a chronic disease and can still be active in the community without posing a danger to their lives or the lives of others. For instance, there is an infected doctor who is still practicing in Gaza,” Dheir said. He stressed that this doctor does not perform any work that risks transmitting the infection to others.
The name of Randa Abu Rabie, head of the World Health Organization HIV/AIDS project in the Palestinian territories, is very popular among AIDS patients because of the affection and care she offers them.
“This is a national project funded by the United Nations Fund. In 2008, interest in AIDS started growing, after AIDS patients were previously treated in Israel’s hospitals, and most of them died in the Strip because they could not travel due to the blockade or the wars. However, there is now a national protocol for the social, medical and psychological treatment of patients,” Abu Rabie said.
She stressed that the split between the West Bank and Gaza has not affected the performance of this program. She pointed out that there were once 82 patients, but that this number decreased to 24 patients in the West Bank and 11 in the Gaza Strip, after a number of patients died.
“We were scared at the beginning of the application of the program in the Gaza Strip, and we were worried about bringing the patients together in regular meetings. But it was not long before we discovered the extent of their openness to the treatment,” Abu Rabie added.
She said the patients in the Strip are mostly widows who were infected by their husbands, and all but one have children. One of the women gave birth to a child infected with the virus. Her son is 27 years old. Another has a 5-year-old girl infected with HIV.
“I do not sympathize with these patients because they are HIV positive or because of their poverty, but rather because they are women who have been socially massacred dozens of times more than men. After all, the virus is associated with a specific sexual behavior,” she added.
The latest statistics from the Ministry of Health show that one case of HIV was detected in the West Bank and one in the Gaza Strip in 2013. According to a study conducted by the Health Ministry, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Population Fund, the cumulative number of HIV patients in the occupied territories since the 1980s reached 66 in 2010. It also considered that Israel is one of the most dangerous areas where the virus is easily transmitted to the Palestinian territories, because of the daily contact between Palestinians and Israelis, especially in border areas. According to the study, 75% of the people who were surveyed believe that most of the 61,000 Palestinians that work in Israel have sexual relations with Israelis, because they often find themselves away from their spouses for a long period of time, while others are single. In addition to this, some workers are victims of sexual abuse.
There are no official reports on the success of awareness campaigns for safe sex. However, according to other medical reports, some governmental and non-governmental clinics and hospitals that have AIDS-related programs distribute free condoms in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, particularly to drug addicts.
Abu Rabie stressed that ever since the program started four years ago, the work has not stopped for a single day. As part of the WHO, the workers are keen on the health of patients, adding, “Most of the West Bank’s patients have academic degrees and got infected during their studies abroad. But in the Gaza Strip, these patients are mostly women and young people.”
She noted the presence of infected doctors in the West Bank and a doctor in Gaza who are still practicing their jobs, but do not perform any surgery. She pointed out that there is a private dental clinic with special equipment for AIDS patients in the West Bank, adding that she visits Gaza every few months and provides patients with food baskets.
Umm Hamdan, meanwhile, returned my handshake and offered a warm farewell, though her heart is still filled with anguish over her disease, which she kept a secret from her children for years.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly