June 17, 2003
In 1987, Iraqi Health Ministry officials lured Sabeh Abed Ali and her son, Wislam Chaloob, to a hospital with hopes of a medical cure. Wislam, a hemophiliac, was to receive a special new treatment, they told the family. At Ibn Zuhur Hospital, though, mother and son were separated and Wislam, then nine, was locked in a room. "They told me he would never leave," Ali said. The ministry officials did not tell Ali, but she learned from others that Wislam was one of 123 hemophiliacs, mostly children, infected with HIV by blood products allegedly imported from France. They were Iraq's first known AIDS patients.
Saddam Hussein's government locked them up for four years, until 1991, when it emptied hospitals to make room for anticipated casualties in Saddam Hussein's war to seize Kuwait.
Freed from quarantine, the patients promised to make monthly hospital visits to be monitored for symptoms and counseled about the dangers of spreading the disease. In return, they were given allowances and benefits such as clothes and haircuts by a government determined to keep its AIDS problem quiet and, according to Iraqi health officials, to compensate victims of a medical mistake.
Health officials say the monthly allowance for AIDS patients was 25,000 dinars (about $12 before the war) -- not enough to live on but decent pocket money. Chaloob and his mother say they got only 15,000. But for three months now, Chaloob said, HIV/AIDS patients have not received their allowances. Without an allowance, Chaloob has decided to skip his next hospital visit. Like most experts here, Hamed expects the number of Iraq's HIV/AIDS patients to increase as people drop out of the monitoring program, and as the effects of the U.S. invasion are felt in other ways, such as the arrival of more foreigners in the once-isolated country.
Newsday (Long Island, N.Y.)
06.15.03; Tina Susman