UN agencies implement HIV/AIDS program for Afghan refugees

ISLAMABAD, 8 December (IRIN) - The UN refugee agency has signed a three-year agreement with the UN joint programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to strengthen its prevention and control programme for Afghans residing in refugee camps in Pakistan.

"We are running a basic HIV/AIDS awareness raising programme for Afghan refugees through our health units - set to cater for the refugee population in camps. But now we are going to enhance it with the cooperation of UNAIDS," Dr Naveeda Rehman, a coordinator of health programmes at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IRIN from the northwestern city of Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Under the agreement, signed on Tuesday, both the agencies will work closely to share information on HIV/AIDS and implement UN plans to combat HIV/AIDS in refugee camps.

There are over 100 health units with some 5,000 health workers providing health services to the refugees living in UNHCR-run camps across the country.

"At present, we have 132 refugee camps in total, mostly in NWFP, with around 1 million people, so obviously health care network is also vast here [in NWFP] with 86 health units in over 100 camps," Rehman said.

Balochistan province had some 25 camps, with 19 units, while there were two units in one camp located in Punjab province, she explained.

"Our health workers hold special sessions with refugee communities, informing them about the nature of HIV infection, how it spreads and how to prevent it," Rehman said.

UNHCR is expected to provide protection and legal assistance to all refugees diagnosed with HIV/AIDS through its network of advice and legal aid centres in Pakistan operated by different non-governmental organisations. The agency will also provide financial support for the UNAIDS programme in Pakistan.

"UNAIDS is a coordinating body - and not an implementing agency. We coordinate among different agencies working on HIV/AIDS in different sectors like UNHCR is working with refugees," Dr Samia Hashim, a programme officer at UNAIDS, told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

So far there are no data about the rate of infection or the actual number of HIV/AIDS cases among refugees. "But, as the Afghan refugees are highly mobile and stay away from home most of the time, travelling across the country to work in big cities like Karachi and Lahore, they certainly constitute a high-risk behavioural group," Rehman noted.

"And then the low literacy rate is there. So we need a lot more awareness among the community, a lot more capacity-building and training to prevent it becoming epidemic," the UNHCR official said.

Rehman went on to say that they had a community network in camps, which made easy for them to approach the refugees and get the message across. "But we have come a long way over 25 years to get to this stage and have their confidence and now we can sit with them comfortably and discuss such sensitive issues like HIV/AIDS and other STIs in this conservative community."

However, the UNHCR officer said they still needed to be cautious about sensitivities. "We run separate sessions for males and females with the health workers from the same gender groups," she said.