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Meetings of an AIDS/HIV support group in Tehran are subdued

TEHRAN, Iran—The meetings of the Iranian AIDS society, one of about 80 support groups dedicated to Iran's intertwined crises of heroin addiction and HIV infection, are quiet. The topics, usually offshoots of sex and drugs, are taboo in the conservative Islamic Republic.

One recent Thursday, about 15 people trudged through rain to a meeting in a recreation center. Tea and cookies were served, and visitors were asked to introduce themselves by first name and either "host," meaning HIV-positive, or "guest," HIV-negative.

The audience clapped after each announcement. Then it was a nervous-looking young woman's turn. She was striking, with green eyes and wisps of fair hair sticking out from her head scarf. She wore jeans and carried a stylish Esprit bag.

"Guest," the woman whispered.

The wife of the club's founder turned discreetly to a visitor: "She's actually HIV-positive, but not even her husband knows. She's still too afraid to tell anyone. She thinks she will die soon, anyway. We're still working on her."

The participants were invited to tell their stories. All spoke of heroin addiction as how they'd contracted HIV. Some tearfully said they'd infected their spouses and children.

Afterward, most said they'd contracted HIV in prison, where they cobbled syringes from ballpoint pens and the innards of watches.

"They gave me the cot of a man who had died of AIDS," said a man named Gholam. "I used his syringe, and I didn't even care. I was so addicted."

There were also love stories. Ali, 25, and Afrouz, 30, met at a hospital treatment center.

Afrouz's first husband had died of AIDS. She's HIV-positive, as is her 3-year-old; her 5-year-old is negative. Ali, a recovering heroin addict, thought he'd never find a wife who'd accept his illness. They married a few months ago.

Together, they said, they'll teach their sons about HIV when the time is right, and they vowed they wouldn't let them succumb to the shame that surrounds the virus.

"It was such a bitter, bitter time before I met him," Afrouz said, with a shy glance at her husband. "Now I'm happy. He's brought me hope."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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