Middle East governments should step up efforts to educate their populations about AIDS prevention, Michael Merson, of the World Health Organisation (WHO), told a conference on AIDS prevention in Kuwait in March.

An estimated 75,000 people in the Middle East and North Africa have been infected with the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) which causes AIDS, but the region still has the second lowest level of HIV infections after central and eastern Europe, WHO figures show.

‘Your HIV prevalence is still low, which gives you a precious window of opportunity. Unlike many other regions, you also have rich resources to harness to AIDS prevention,’ said Merson, who is executive director of the WHO’s global programme on AIDS.

Merson said ‘decision makers have to understand that access to information on AIDS is a matter of life or death.’ He said that getting the message across to population groups with lower literacy, such as women, or those with limited access to information, such as young people, requires a special effort.

Regional health officials said greater efforts are already being made to increase education in what is a traditionally sensitive area. Hussein Jezairy, director of the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) and a former Saudi Arabian health minister, said that people had been told, ‘if you are not prepared to follow your own customs and traditions, then you must use a condom.’

‘It is sensitive, but we are slowly coming over and we are talking frankly to students in universities, in associations and in sports clubs. We are also inviting scholars and religious personnel to be involved in giving advice about AIDS in Friday prayers,’ Abdul Rahman al-Swalam, Saudi Arabia’s deputy health minister said.