By Syed Zafar Mehdi
TEHRAN (AA) – Protests have rocked a small town in Iran’s southwestern province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, following rumors that people had been infected with HIV during a diabetes-screening program.
Since Saturday, protesters have unleashed their fury at government offices — including local health centers — in Lordegan accusing them of infecting as many as 300 people with the deadly virus.
Reacting to the unsavory developments, Iran’s Health Ministry said the total number of HIV-positive people in Chenar Mahmoudi, a small village near Lordegan, was around 70 to 90 and many of them were infected five to seven years ago.
Health Minister Saeed Namaki dismissed reports that the outbreak of virus happened due to a contaminated syringe used by a local nurse, saying that the health officials had no role in it.
“There is no link between the HIV cases and our diabetes-screening program. The HIV cases are the result of intravenous drug use and unprotected sex,” he said, adding that the ministry is committed to conducting tests and treating those infected with the virus free of cost.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, a senior official of the Health Ministry said the diabetes-screening program was conducted during the summer season and the nurse administered the blood tests using disposable kits, which are completely safe.
“The rumor spread due to lack of awareness among people in the village regarding HIV and the ways of its transmission,” he said on the condition of anonymity due to restrictions on speaking to the media.
“It is medically and statistically unthinkable that a single contaminated syringe will infect 300 people,” he added.
Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raeisi told state-run news agency IRNA that the ministry has conducted HIV tests on 1,400 people in Chenar Mahmoudi and found 70 positive cases, many of them infected years ago.
– Drug addicts in village
A local parliamentarian Hossein Ghorbani said there were around 240 drug addicts in the village using contaminated needles, corroborating the statement of Health Ministry that most of the HIV-positive people in the village were drug users.
However, the villagers accuse the health officials of using contaminated needles for blood tests, putting lives of people at risk.
“The health ministry came to our village for free blood sugar and insulin tests,” a resident of Chenar Mahmoud was quoted as saying by Iran Human Rights Monitor, adding that the syringes were infected with an “unknown virus”.
According to local sources, hundreds of people held protests in front of government offices in Lordegan, demanding stringent action against the nurse who allegedly administered the blood tests. The mob even attacked some government buildings, sources said.
Some videos have been circulating online showing people protesting and clashing with local police. Iranian parliamentarians have demanded a report on the clashes.
“The situation has been brought under control by the police but the anger is simmering inside,” Abdullah Haidari, a journalist from Lordegan, told Anadolu Agency.
“It may be true that the infections were prior to the diabetes-screening program, but it is the job of health officials to conduct awareness program about HIV and its prevention,” Haidari added.
According to UNAIDS 2018 report, a total of 61,000 people are living with HIV in Iran, with 4,400 new infections and 2,600 deaths resulting from the deadly virus.
The number of AIDS-related deaths has increased by 8 percent since 2010, from 2,400 deaths to 2,600 deaths, the report said. The number of new HIV infections has decreased from 5,000 to 4,400 in the same period, it added.
The report further states that of the 60,000 adults living with HIV in Iran, 15,000 (25 percent) were women and the treatment was higher among women than men, with 27 percent adult women having HIV on treatment, compared to 17 percent adult men.