TEHRAN, Iran: Iran said Monday that the country has registered more than 18,000 HIV-positive citizens and is worried that number could rise in a rare government disclosure about the AIDS causing virus.
Health Minister Kamran Bagheri Lankarani said increasingly Iranians were transmitting HIV through "illegal sexual relations," meaning adultery, prostitution and homosexuality, which are all illegal in Iran.
Talk of HIV, AIDS and sex outside of marriage is taboo in Iran, especially by government officials. Though Iranian officials have acknowledged HIV exists, it is also rare for the government to announce any figures or admit the virus was spreading through sexual contact.
"What we are worried about is a third wave of the AIDS epidemic through sexual contact given that a majority of our population are young people," Lankarani said on state television Monday to mark World AIDS Day.
Abbas Sedaqat, head of the ministry's AIDS Department, said the number of HIV infections was steadily increasing.
"There are 18,320 registered individuals who have tested HIV-positive, but the total number of Iranians infected with the deadly virus is estimated between 70,000 to 100,000," Sedaqat said. The U.N. AIDS agency estimates about 86,000 people are HIV-positive in Iran.
Sedaqat said about 69 percent of those infected were drug addicts who had used contaminated needles. The other 30 percent was through sexual contact, he said.
In recent years there also has been a growing interest in educating Iranians about HIV and AIDS. State television has shown programs emphasizing how the virus is transmitted and urging people to avoid sex outside of marriage.
The Education Ministry, which previously shunned AIDS awareness in schools, also recently permitted a booklet to be distributed to high school students that explained how HIV is transmitted, including information on sexual transmission. The materials also mentioned condoms but emphasized religion and family values including avoiding sex outside of marriage. It also cautioned against using hypodermic syringes.
Iran's Social Security and Welfare, Abdolreza Mesri, said Monday that an effective policy to stop the spread of HIV was to provide marriage opportunities for young people.
More than half of Iran's 70 million people are under the age of 25, but economic hardships force many young people to delay getting married until they are older.
"Through promoting a culture of timely marriage, many people can be saved from being infected with HIV now and in the future," the official IRNA news agency quoted Mesri as saying.
Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that about 33 million people have HIV.
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