Despite the government’s pledge to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030, the number of individuals suffering from AIDS/HIV in Iran has been steadily rising.
According to a 2016 survey by the United Nations, there were roughly 5000 new infections between the years 2010 and 2016, adding up to the total of 66 thousand people living with HIV. However, some estimates claim that there may be over 100 thousand Iranians suffering from HIV, highlighting significant discrepancies between official statistics and reality.
The AIDS epidemic in Iran has a significant drug-related dimension. Being part of the Golden Crescent, a region spanning Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan with prominent illicit opium production, Iran has served as a pathway for drug traffickers in the shipping of narcotics from Afghanistan to Europe.
While the Iranian government does not treat drug trafficking lightly, the illegal drug trade has fueled the country’s growing problems with drug addiction.
According to a survey carried out by the Iranian Drug Control Organization, there are about 2.8 million Iranians who regularly use narcotics. Out of those, roughly 67 percent take heroin as their primary drug.
The widespread availability of heroin and other opiates, which are often taken intravenously, has served as an important vector spreading AIDS/HIV among drug addicts, with UN statistics claiming that 9.3 percent of Iranian drug addicts currently have HIV.
While there have been efforts undertaken by the government to promote the use of clean needles and other practices targeting the spread of AIDS/HIV among drug users, the country’s policy against addicts has sometimes been called a “vicious cycle”.
According to Mohammad Bakhshandeh, the chief of the Drug Police of Greater Tehran, the problem is largely caused by ineffective policies which treat drug addicts as criminals, rather than victims of addiction.
“If we have accepted the fact that addicts are not criminals and consider them as sick individuals, we should also accept that it is the duty of municipal and health departments to look after them, not the police’s,” Bakhshandeh said. In turn, HIV has entered Iranian prisons, with roughly 1 percent of Iran’s prisoners now suffering from HIV.
However, more than ever before, there has been a steady increase in HIV transmission rates through unprotected sexual intercourse, rather than intravenous drug use. This is not limited only to Iranian sex workers, where up to 2 percent of all sex workers suffer from HIV, but to the younger generation in general.
Indeed, whereas about 70 percent of sex workers suffering from HIV know their status, only 41 of the general population suffering from HIV are aware of their condition. Similarly, the country’s treatment services have also delivered lackluster results, with only 13 percent of HIV-positive individual having suppressed viral loads as part of treatment.
This has been particularly problematic for the younger generation. According to Parvin Afsar Kazerouni, the head of the Health Ministry’s AIDS department, more than 50 percent of HIV patients in Iran are between 21 and 35.
Although the government continues to blame illegal drug use as the chief source of HIV transmission, unprotected sexual intercourse is becoming a significant factor.
This can be partly explained through the lack of sexual education program offered to Iran’s youth, with only 18 percent of Iranian youth aged between 15-24 knowing about HIV prevention.
The government’s inability to provide well-rounded sexual education to its young population highlights an equally difficult challenge to the regime’s fundamentalist character.
While drug addiction and prostitution continue to be deemed as “social problems”, the ostracized nature of HIV-positive individuals in the general public presents an immensely problematic issue, which effectively prevents the possibility to educate individuals on HIV and living with an HIV-positive status.
In turn, this ineffective policy may lead to the further spread of this disease, particularly to at risk group such as gay men who already retain a highly stigmatized position in Iranian society, as well as to other segments of the Iranian population.