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AIDS follows Afghanistan's 'miniglobalization'

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For nine long years, Laila has walked the streets of Kabul in a sky-blue burqa veil, eking out a living as a prostitute.

It is an occupation with many risks in a traditional Islamic society like Afghanistan, and a profession that was especially dangerous under the Taliban government, which punished prostitutes by stoning them to death.

But today, she faces a different threat.

"I have never heard of HIV before, and I don't know what it is," says Laila, who has never before insisted that her customers use condoms. "The women who go into prostitution, they don't worry about their lives. If we die, what does it matter? If I live, what does it all mean?"

The emergence and spread of HIV, the virus linked to AIDS, largely passed over Afghanistan during its 23 years of civil war. Now Afghanistan is witnessing one of the largest influxes of people in its history, and among all the new arrivals is a foreign disease that even rich countries have trouble controlling. And while the numbers of people testing positive for HIV are low - last year eight, this year 15 - the nascent problem has deep social, moral, and political reverberations.

The disease has made inroads not only through prostitution, but through illicit drug use, say health officials. There are some 6,000 intravenous drug users in Kabul alone, most of them heroin addicts who have returned from refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.

As a senior planning official at the Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Hedayatullah Stanekzai says he regards AIDS in Afghanistan as a serious problem. But in a country with so many health problems already at the crisis stage, it is nearly impossible to give adequate attention to a future problem like AIDS, he says.

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