June 08, 2018
By Firouzeh Ramezanzadeh
AIDS Bus is part of the “I Also Get Tested For HIV” campaign that was launched by Tehran University’s School of Medicine on November 9, 2015 to provide information, help, and advice to high-risk groups, namely the homeless, sex workers and drug addicts in poor and underprivileged urban neighborhoods.
Volunteer doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers and individuals with HIV operated these mobile testing facilities, which served the south and the west sides of Tehran.
The authorities have recently shut down the services in Tehran and other cities, saying that the scheme promoted “irresponsible behavior.” According to the director of the Iran Research Center for HIV/AIDS (IRCHA), Dr. Minou Moharez, the government has cut funding for AIDS drug research. Dr. Moharez has also disputed a recent statement by the head of the Health Ministry’s public relations office, Abbas Zarenejad, who said that the government had not halted the AIDS Bus services.
“Homeless women and sex workers used to be very suspicious of us. They thought that we were going to send them to jail. They were even hostile and very aggressive at times. We needed police protection. But we gradually gained their trust. The women began bringing their friends to us for help, advice and free condoms,” a nurse at the Mostafa Khomeini Hospital in Tehran, who worked as a volunteer with the Aids Bus program, told Kayhan London.
She added: “Our group worked from 6 o’clock in the afternoon until 3 the next morning. We’d stop in the underprivileged areas in the south side, such as Mowlavi Ave, Shoosh Square, and Davrzaeh Ghar. These are rough and dangerous neighborhoods, but we weren’t scared. We provided a valuable service to the residents. I worked with sex workers, many of whom took the HIV test voluntarily.”
“In addition to the HIV and hepatitis tests, we also gave women Pap tests. We urged anyone who tested positive to seek immediate help at a hospital or a health clinic. Unfortunately, a high percentage of women tested positive for one or more of those diseases,” she noted. “We provided information about HIV/AIDS to young female prostitutes, and gave them free condoms.”
She added: “Unfortunately, many religious people approached our bus, thinking that we were rounding up and removing prostitutes from the streets. They were encouraging us to get rid of them.”
An HIV-positive AIDS Bus volunteer told Kayhan London: “I worked with the AIDS Bus for 20 nights last year. We helped people on the west side of Tehran. We received very positive feedback from the residents and young male and female high school and university students who were curious about our work. We gave them the relevant brochures. Many people took the test as soon as they found out that it was free. We normally have the test results within 20 minutes. It’s a real shame that the authorities have decided to end the scheme.”
Article 3.3 of UNESCO’s 2030 Agenda For Sustainable Development calls for “ending the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases by 2030.”
Hardline newspapers such as Tehran-based Kayhan and Javan have, however, described UNESCO’s agenda as a “dangerous scheme” that threatens Islamic principles and values. They have said that educating students about HIV and AIDS will corrupt young people.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The Islamic Republic will not be coerced into signing this document and others like it. We’ve warned the government officials not to sign and implement it.”
The Ministry of Health recorded 36,571 cases of people with HIV by December 22, 2017. Half of them were between 21 and 35 years of age. More than 60 percent of those affected didn’t know they had HIV.
The AIDS Bus and similar programs help to raise public awareness about the disease. The scheme could also prevent the spread of HIV by informing and assisting those who have been affected.