"Intravenous drug usage remains the key challenge to combating the spread of HIV/AIDS in Iran today," Dr Mitra Motamedi, the director of Iran's department of AIDS and hepatitis in the Ministry of Health, told IRIN in the capital, Tehran. The vast majority of Iran's AIDS sufferers - 65 percent - were men who contracted the disease through contaminated needles, she said

According to official estimates, infection was 12 percent through sexual contact, nine percent through blood transfusion, one percent mother-to-child transmission and 13 percent unknown. The first reported AIDS case in Iran dates back to 1987, when a six-year-old haemophiliac child was diagnosed to have been infected, resulting in the establishment of the National Committee to fight AIDS and its executive and technical committees.

Since then, there have been 4,237 reported cases of HIV/AIDS. Of this number, 626 have developed full-blown AIDS and 585 have died. But health officials, most notably in the government, acknowledge that the real numbers are much higher. "These are only reported cases. A more accurate estimate would be around 20,000," Motamedi said.

Sharing her concern was head of infectious diseases at the Ayatollah Khomeini Hospital and one of the leading experts on AIDS in Iran, Dr Minoo Mohraz. "The threat is increasing. We have not stopped it," she told IRIN. "It's not under control." Her warning is not new. Just two years ago, former Health Minister Mohammad Farhadi described HIV/AIDS at a conference ahead of World AIDS Day in Tehran as a "time bomb" waiting to go off. "There is a time bomb ticking in Iran and we have to take it seriously,"


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