Egyptian actress Yousra aims to raise Mideast AIDS awareness 
In this Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016 photo, Egyptian film star Yousra smiles after being appointed as U.N. Goodwill Ambassador in Middle East and North Africa during a ceremony in Cairo. Yousra has taken up a role with the United Nations to help combat HIV and AIDS in the Middle East, where prevalence is low but growing at a rapid pace. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO:  Egyptian film star Yousra has taken up a role with the United Nations to help combat HIV and AIDS in the Middle East, where prevalence is low but growing rapidly.

In an interview Monday in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, where she was named a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for the cause, she said that stigmas and taboos associated with the virus must be combated and societies taught to be more sympathetic to those infected.

“For us to defeat it we have to admit it exists,” she told the Associated Press. “Because people have a right to medication so they can live with dignity, and so pregnant woman can prevent passing it on to their children. We have to break the silence and overcome the fear.”

Some 240,000 people live with HIV in the Middle East and North Africa region, which is facing a worsening refugee crisis, rising inequality, humanitarian emergencies and discriminatory laws.

New cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, rose by 26 percent in the region between 2000 and 2014, the United Nations says, making the Middle East and North Africa one of the areas where it’s growing the fastest. Europe and the United States have also seen recent setbacks in fighting new infections.

Policy in the Middle East, however, greatly contributes to the stigmatization of those infected, with many countries imposing harsh rules surrounding activities that can lead to the virus’s transmission. Consensual same-sex sexual conduct, for example, is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Somalia, and criminalized in most of the other states in the region. Drug use is also punishable by death in several countries.

HIV epidemics are concentrated among high-risk groups — people who inject drugs, migrants, sex workers and men who have sex with men.

Yousra, whose career spans four decades and who has worked with celebrated filmmaker Yousef Chahine and actor Adel Emam, says she took up the cause after meeting people who had been abandoned by their families after being infected by the virus.

“I felt that society and human beings were crueler than even the virus itself,” she said, adding that she has known people suffering from HIV and AIDS since the epidemic emerged in the 1980s. “The virus can be handled but the people affected cannot handle the harmful regard of society against them, society ejecting them.”

Globally, around 36 million people are living with HIV, with some 2 million newly infected in 2014. The virus is steadily being beaten back, in part due to increasing access to antiretroviral therapy, leaving new infections nearly 40 percent lower than they were in 2001. AIDS-related deaths — which stood at 1.5 million in 2013 — have fallen 35 percent since peaking in 2005.

U.N. efforts to fight HIV aim to reduce the number of new infections to 500,000 by 2020 and 200,000 in 2030.

With several countries in the region lacking lessons on sexual and reproductive health in their school systems, Yousra said that this education should be bolstered in school curriculums and at home.

“All state institutions and civil society have to have the awareness to speak about the issue.”

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