In observance of the 12th annual National HIV/AIDS Testing Day on Tuesday, I thought I'd share an unusual story regarding AIDS in Iraq.
A few weeks after I arrived in Baghdad, I was having dinner with some media colleagues when the conversation turned to complaining about the endless and growing amount of Iraqi government red tape. "Yeah, like needing an AIDS test to leave the country," one woman piped up. HUH? WUZZAT? Yo backup there hon... I need a WHAT?
I thought it might be a mistake. There was some discrepency among reporters about whether everyone needed an HIV test, or whether it only pertained to Westerners staying in Iraq longer than a month or more. This was all news to me and no mention of needles, blood or AIDS has ever come up in my past six visits to Iraq since 2003. But I didn't want to find out at the last second and get stranded at Baghdad Airport for not having the proper paperwork. So on Thursday, I packed up my team and headed across town to find out the scoop. Low and behold, it was true.
All Western visitors to Iraq now require an HIV/AIDS test.
The testing center was actually a women's health clinic in central Baghdad. It was a strange place, and not just because there were armed guards holding AK-47s outside. The clinic was a plain white cement block building encircling a courtyard, where children were doing laundry in buckets filled with muddy water and a man, maybe their father, was repairing a car. We climbed up three flights of stairs to a dark hallway, where three women were sitting together chatting. An Iraqi man in the corner had his sleeve rolled up on his right arm, holding gauze where he had just been pricked.
The lady at the head desk introduced herself in English as the head doctor. We'll call her Dr. HIV. Yes, she says, HIV tests are now required for everyone, Iraqis and Westerners. And your passport will be stamped here as proof that you had the blood test. And if you don't get a blood test, you can't get an exit visa. And if you can't get an exit visa, you CAN'T LEAVE IRAQ!
Not only that, she says, but you must have a test within 10 days of arriving in Baghdad. And if you are late, you will be fined $430.
Uh oh. It had been nearly three weeks since my arrival. But she said not to worry; because it was a new procedure and I didn't know any better, and because nobody in the government or airport had bothered to advertise this new procedure, I would only be fined $17. But because HIV has a 90 day incubation period, she says, all visitors to Iraq must have an HIV test every three months. If you are HIV positive, you'll be thrown out of the country.
Now I'm getting worried. Several years ago, I had a false -- FALSE-- positive test after donating blood with the American Red Cross. That test was completely wrong and subsequent tests have all been negative. It turns out that false tests are actually quite common. This is because initial HIV tests run on blood samples are basic preliminary tests. If somebody turns up positive, the blood is rechecked three more times using more sophisticated tests. All three subsequent tests turned up negative. But that did not stop the Red Cross from banning me FOR LIFE from ever donating blood again. Bastards.
Anyway, back to Baghdad. Somehow I seriously doubt this little shabby clinic had the tools to run sophisticated tests should the results come out positive. I didn't want to explain this experience with the doctor so I just kept my mouth shut and rolled up my sleeve after she assured me the needles were all clean and new.
Another girl walked in and put a tourniquet around my bicep and quickly found the usual vein that flobatamists love. "You have good veins," she said in English as she ripped open a package containing one new sterilized needle. "Geez, thanks," I thought but just smiled and nodded. She wiped some alcohol on my arm, found the vein, drew a half-vial of blood and gave me a cotton ball to hold on the wound. In the meantime, Dr. HIV scribbles out some information on a white card and then stamps my passport with the Health Ministry's blood-red stamp. How appropriate.
We were in and out of the office within 15 minutes. I did not, however, receive my results. It takes 10 days for the test to be completed. At which time I'll be long gone from Iraq anyway! See, it doesnt matter if you are positive or negative, because all you need is the passport stamp that proves you had the test! So even if you're positive, you're in the clear as long as you leave the country before the results come back. Does that make any sense at all?!?
Later, I inquired around as to why Iraq has instituted these new AIDS procedures. Apparently it was standard practice under Saddam Hussein's regime, and it still is practiced by many countries around the world especially in the Middle East. Under Saddam, Iraqis rarely traveled outside the country due to UN-imposed sanctions and low wages so the country remained fairly isolated and hence a low exposure to HIV/AIDS. According to the CIA World Factbook, there are less than 500 cases of HIV in Iraq, a country with a population of 26 million. The tests were halted after Saddam ended up in his spider hole.
But post-war Iraq has brought (besides IEDs) a lot of money into the country and created a whole Middle Class that now enjoys freedom like international travel. And like Western travelers, Iraqis are now going abroad, screwing around, and bringing back all sorts of germs, viruses and cooties including HIV.
But Iraqis do not need to be tested for HIV every three months. We do. The tests are much more strict for Westerners, who are seen as "loose" and permiscious.
You would think that the new Iraqi government would have bigger things to be worrying about right now like, say, trying to end the fucking insurgency, Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence and corruption. Or trying to build up the Iraqi police and Army and encourage everyone to put down their arms. After all, the sooner the country stabilizes ITSELF, the sooner that infidel US and foreign troops can go home.
Nope, sorry. We're too busy running HIV/AIDS tests on foreigners. Oh and by the way, if you are HIV-positive, stay the fuck out of Iraq.
Welcome to Baghdad.