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Ethiopian Immigrants Significantly Increase AIDS Virus Carriers

July 5, 1991

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The airlift that brought 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel has increased the country’s pool of HIV carriers by nearly 25 percent, a leading AIDS researcher says.

To prevent the disease’s spread, the Health Ministry has ordered the testing of all Ethiopians over age 9 who arrived during Operation Solomon, the 36-hour airlift carried out in May during the revolution in Ethiopia.

While the number of AIDS victims and HIV carriers remains small in Israel, Dr. Shlomo Maayan said the sudden jump in a country with a population of 4.8 million has ″a huge impact.″

Shlomo Mulla, an Ethiopian immigrant leader, said there was no reason for mandatory testing of Ethiopians because he believed AIDS was not prevalent among them. He said the testing was putting a stigma on the community.

″What, is there no AIDS in the Israeli community or in United States or Europe? To say that just because they come from Africa they have AIDS is terrible,″ Mulla said.

Zeev Handzel, head of Israel’s Association for AIDS Prevention, made similar comments in an interview with the weekly Jerusalem Report. ″It’s criminal to blame Ethiopian immigrants for any new increase. You are more likely to catch AIDS from an American tourist,″ he said.

Maayan, director of the AIDS department at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, said preliminary estimates showed that 1 percent, or about 150 of the new Ethiopian immigrants, were suffering from AIDS or carrying the HIV virus.

″That’s estimated, but it is based on tests on the Ethiopians by the Ministry of Health,″ he said.

The precise number is not known. Maayan said six recently arrived Ethiopians, some from Operation Solomon, are being treated at Hadassah for the disease.

None heard of AIDS until they arrived, he said.

Besides the newly arrived Ethiopians, about 150 people suffer from AIDS in Israel and 500 others carry the virus.

AIDS attacks the body’s immune system, leaving victims susceptible to a wide variety of infections and cancers. It is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Carriers of the virus do not always have AIDS, although infection nearly always leads to the incurable disease.

Maayan said the testing is already creating problems among the mostly uneducated immigrants. Those diagnosed with AIDS have never heard of the disease, he said. Others are confused by the blood tests and reluctant to discuss their sexual habits.

″We have brought these people from a medical situation equivalent with the 12th century to the 21st century,″ said Dr. Avraham Reshef, head of public health services in Israel.

Dr. Moshe Mashiah, director general of the Health Ministry, said medical experts had expected some Ethiopians would be carrying the AIDS virus since the disease is spreading rapidly in Africa.

Reshef also noted the problems in testing.

″The language is presenting a problem for us. A person won’t give blood freely and you need to explain to them why we are taking it,″ Reshef said. ″So we have translators, but they are outsiders and the people won’t speak to a stranger of their sexual diseases.″

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