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[DUBAI] A dearth of data, and lack of science-based policymaking, are hampering efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), according to a major scientific study.

'Characterizing the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa: Time for Strategic Action' is the most comprehensive scientific synthesis of HIV spread in the region since the discovery of HIV 25 years ago, according to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

It was launched at the sidelines of an HIV/AIDS policy dialogue meeting in Dubai this week (28–29 June) and produced by the World Bank, in collaboration with UNAIDS and the WHO.

"The basic assumption in the region was that there are no HIV data in MENA," Laith Abu-Raddad, assistant professor of public health at the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Group, at the Qatar-based Weill Cornell Medical College, and the lead author of the report, told SciDev.Net. "The major obstacle [to scientific assessments of HIV/AIDS in MENA] is that people did not believe it was possible."

The study reveals that scientific research has a long way to go in the region — the existing data are of a low quality and un-representative, Abu-Raddad said: "The data are not collected where HIV is actually spreading".

And although there is a limited number of ongoing studies on HIV risk in the region, scientific data is not being used efficiently for policy-making and there is still a wide gap between policymakers and researchers because of political sensitivities, he added.

To address this, Abu-Raddad suggested establishing links between scientists and policymakers, and finding a good formula for them to work together.

"[MENA] stands as the only region where knowledge of the epidemic continues to be very limited, inaccessible, and subject to much controversy," said Akiko Maeda, manager for the Health, Nutrition and the Population Sector in the World Bank's Human Development Department, at the Dubai meeting.

The meeting brought together health ministers and representatives of international donor agencies and civil society. The consensus statement from the conference also called for, among other things, improved data and surveillance on the HIV epidemic in the MENA region.

Around 412, 000 people were living with HIV in the region in 2008, with only 14 per cent of people having access to treatment, according to UNAIDS.

Link to full report 'Characterizing the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa: Time for Strategic Action' [2.89MB]