The HIV virus can be transmitted via direct contact between bodily fluids - unprotected sex, drug injections, blood transfusions, and open wounds. It cannot be transmitted through the air, food, drinks, or via regular physical contact.
World AIDS Day is marked every year on December 1st. This year, the AIDS Unit at Rambam Health Care Campus chose to highlight several concerns that they have identified among the Unit’s patients during the past year, including a troubling increase in the number of patients. In 2021, the Unit treated 84 new patients, and a total of approximately 1,400 patients. This was a significant increase over 2020, when there were only 65 new patients.
The bulk of the increase among Israeli patients is in the Arab sector, who constitute about 41% of all new patients this year. An increase in the rate of new carriers was also recorded among immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia – about 25% of the total number of new patients.
This increase is particularly noticeable in the COVID-19 era, and attempts to explain the reasons behind it when comparing to last year’s numbers include the fact that 2020 was a year of closures and travel restrictions due to the pandemic, while 2021 brought back international flights, tourists, and the waves of Aliyah to Israel for Diaspora Jews. These factors appear to have contributed to this year’s higher infection numbers.
“We found that some of the new immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe came to Israel as carriers and AIDS patients,” notes Dr. Eduardo Shahar, Director of the Immunology Institute at Rambam and head of the AIDS Unit. Regarding the higher rate of infection among Arabs, Dr. Shahar explains, “Arab society remains a closed society, where it is not customary to reveal such tendencies. As a result, young members of the LGBT community are, unfortunately, often unaware of AIDS education and advocacy campaigns – they have unprotected and infected sex, with severe consequences.”
The AIDS Unit at Rambam routinely face numerous challenges. Together with the Department of Social Work, the team provides care for pregnant women with HIV, newborns who come into the world with the virus, and patients who must deal with the stigma of AIDS. “We have AIDS patients who cannot find work,” says Dr. Shahar. “In 2021, with more than 40 years of HIV treatment behind us, there are still people who are stigmatized because of the disease. We know of quite a few cases in which patients were required to bring a summary of medical information from the family doctor as part of the recruitment process to a new workplace. These are talented and worthy people who eventually found themselves out of work because of prejudice and ignorance about people who have AIDS.”
Reason for Optimism
Research and development over the past 40 years has helped HIV carriers receive chronic anti-viral treatment that allows them to lead relatively normal lives for many years. “Our unit can provide tools for those who come to be tested, which will help maintain good health,” shares Dr. Shahar. “Over the past year, we have found ourselves treating patients whose shame has caused them to hide and not get tested, and as a result, they are confronting life-threatening situations. This is reminiscent of the AIDS patients of the early 1990s. There are people currently in poor health with failing immune systems, who suffer from serious diseases that should not have harmed them. All of this could have been avoided, had these patients overcome the shame and fear of social ostracism and undergone HIV testing.”