In mid-March, several Lebanese NGOs fighting against HIV, an activist of the pan-European association EATG and Hornet’s General Manager in Paris met in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, to discuss together the best strategies for promoting access to testing, linkage to care and fighting stigma. It was a great opportunity to discover a diverse and highly committed community in Lebanon.
The Middle East, the Near East and North Africa are regions affected least by the epidemic. In 2016, UNAIDS estimated there were 230,000 people living with HIV in the Middle East and North Africa.
But in Lebanon, and mainly in Beirut, the vast majority of new infections are among men who have sex with men (MSM). If health authorities listen to local organizations, there are still some cultural barriers at play. An example? According to the national AIDS program, PrEP, the once-daily pill that prevents HIV, is available in Lebanon but only for heterosexual and married couples who are serodiscordant!
Five Lebanese organizations took the opportunity to show off activities they’ve put in place. It’s difficult to summarize all of what’s being accomplished on the ground in Beirut and Lebanon, but let’s look at the work of two organizations targeting LGBTQ people in particular.
In three years, between 2014 and 2017, nearly 2,500 people benefited from Proud services — in particular its psychological support and medical and legal advice. Proud operates in the cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Zahle.
Support+ is a self-help group for LGBTQ people living with HIV. The goal of this group, led by two HIV-positive people, is to assist those living with HIV in the LGBTQ community and to support newly infected individuals.
Proud also intervened in seven Lebanese detention centers between August 2017 and January 2018.
In Arabic, Marsa is the name of a dock that is a safe place for boats before going to sea. Created in 2010, the organization has just moved into modern and much larger premises.
During the impromptu visit we had after the meeting, Marsa’s Executive Director Diana explained to me that everyone is welcome in this sexual health center. But special efforts are being made to welcome people from more vulnerable populations, particularly isolated women and LGBTQ people.
Marsa can perform any type of screening test (HIV, STIs, hepatitis) and also offers medical consultations, vaccinations and dietary advice. Very strong on social media, the organization also produces educational videos, like the one below, dedicated to condom use. It features openly gay Lebanese singer Hamed Sinno and Yumna Ghandour, a member of Lebanon’s leading punk band, Deepthroat.
Gilead, which organized this meeting, is committed to supporting innovative initiatives in terms of access to testing, care and the fight against stigma. Lebanon is a model of a chaotic region — Syria is only two hours from Beirut — where entire countries are subject to very authoritarian regimes. But still, HIV education and care is possible.
Featured image by ramzihachicho