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(Sanaa) – People with HIV and AIDS are routinely denied care within Yemen’s health care system, Human Rights Watch said in an October 2014 letter to the Yemeni minister of health released today. Yemeni authorities should end discrimination by health workers against people with HIV and ensure patients’ equal access to healthcare services, as mandated by a 2009 law.

“Kicking sick people out of the hospital because they have HIV is not just discriminatory, it’s cruel,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The Health Ministry should enforce Yemen’s law barring discrimination against people who are HIV-positive.”

In September 2014, Human Rights Watch spoke to seven HIV-positive individuals in Yemen who said that they had been repeatedly refused treatment once medical staff found out their HIV status. Six health workers told Human Rights Watch they believed such discrimination was common in state-run healthcare facilities. A 2009 law provides free health services to people with HIV and imposes criminal penalties on health workers who discriminate against them.

Three health professionals told Human Rights Watch that on August 15, 2014, at the state-run Republican Hospital in Sanaa, a doctor refused to treat a patient suffering from seizures when she learned the patient was HIV-positive. In front of other patients and staff, the doctor shouted that the patient had HIV and ordered that she be removed from the hospital. The doctor also demanded that the patient’s husband be arrested for having withheld this information; hospital staff held him for 45 minutes before releasing him with the warning that he should “not cause any trouble in the future.”

An HIV-positive woman told Human Rights Watch that in 2012, doctors at a private clinic forced her to leave while she was in labor and in need of a caesarian section because they learned of her HIV status.

Several other individuals living with HIV described being denied care at public and private health facilities in Sanaa and Taizz for a range of different ailments.

Dr. Ahmed al-Garati, who treats individuals with HIV in Sanaa’s Republican Hospital, expressed concern about the unwillingness of others to treat such patients. “We provide our employees with all the necessary safety equipment so this has nothing to do with the risk,” he said. “It is pure discrimination. The same healthcare workers have no problem dealing with patients who have other diseases that carry a higher risk of infection. The biggest problem is that no staff members are ever held accountable for discriminating against patients with HIV.”

Because of difficulties getting treatment at state-run healthcare facilities, people living with HIV frequently turn to private facilities. Patients told Human Rights Watch they were charged higher fees for medication and treatment. “Given that we are unable to use public facilities, some doctors take advantage of the situation and charge us double the normal medical cost that they charge other patients at the same facility for the same procedure,” one person with HIV said.

Human Rights Watch has to date received no reply to a request for information from the Yemeni government in response to these alleged human rights violations.

The right to the highest attainable standard of health is guaranteed under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Yemen ratified in 1987. International law provides that access to health care must be on a non-discriminatory basis and discrimination on any grounds is prohibited. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors compliance with the covenant, says governments “should ensure that appropriate goods, services and information for the prevention and treatment of STDs [sexually transmitted diseases], including HIV/AIDS, are available and accessible.”

The United Nations agency UNAIDS has estimated that there were about 6,000 people living with HIV in Yemen in 2013. A 2013 UNAIDS report cited advances in the government’s political commitment to addressing the issue, but found that HIV/AIDS policies were badly disrupted by donor funding cuts after the political crisis of 2011.

Medical staff should be more receptive to the rights of patients with HIV and fulfil their obligation to provide the same level of health care to all Yemenis, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Yemeni government needs to take action against doctors, nurses, and other health workers who discriminate against HIV-positive patients,” Houry said. “Yemen’s donors should help the governments train health workers to provide services to everyone, including people with HIV.”

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