Prague, 15 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A survey published last year in Iran revealed misconceptions among Tehran high school students about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted. Twenty to 30 percent of the respondents incorrectly identified mosquito bites, swimming pools, and toilets as routes of transmission.
A new website -- Emdade AIDS -- is designed to give Persian-speaking youth a place to find accurate information and about HIV/AIDS -- and to ask questions anonymously.
While Iranian officials have begun to speak more freely about AIDS, most observers say the disease -- like everything else related to sex -- remains a taboo subject in the conservative Islamic Republic.
Mehdi Malek Mohammadi is the founder of Emdade AIDS and is a doctoral student in Austria. He told RFE/RL he decided to establish the website after he discovered little information was available online in Persian about HIV/AIDS.
"Most of the questions are about sexual issues -- information they need about how they can protect themselves from this disease."
"We are trying to give youth access to information [about HIV/AIDS]. We chose the Internet because young people -- especially Iranians -- are scattered all over the world. There is widespread immigration from Iran. And they need their information in Persian. They have more confidence [in a website] because their identity remains a secret. The web has given them the possibility to speak very openly," Mohammadi said.
Emdade is a Persian word meaning "relief" or "help." Parts of the website are also available in English and German.
Experts say young people are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection because of risky sexual behavior, drug use, and a lack of knowledge about HIV prevention.
According to the United Nations, some 10 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 are currently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. About half of all new infections are occurring among young people.
In Central Asia, the United Nations says 80 percent of those living with HIV are under the age of 30.
The Emdade AIDS website features general information about HIV/AIDS, as well as sections devoted to AIDS prevention, sex education, and HIV testing. It also includes a counseling section, where questions and answers related to HIV/AIDS are posted. This dialogue covers a wide range of issues -- including the use of condoms and homosexuality. The site also contains AIDS-related news and statistics.
Malek Mohammadi says Persian-speakers from all over the world are visiting the site.
"Through the end of 2004, the site was visited 1,500,000 times. This year, we've had more than 1 million visitors. In the first place, [people] from Iran are visiting the site. We'd like to have more visitors from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Unfortunately, we don't know how to find out about the number of visitors from Afghanistan," Mohammadi said.
Malek Mohammadi says many young Iranians and Afghans studying in Europe, Canada, and the United States are visiting the site and sending in questions.
Several Persian-speaking experts on HIV/AIDS in the United States and Canada are working with Emdade AIDS to offer free advice to visitors.
Mohammadi says most of the questions the website receives are related to the ways HIV can be transmitted.
"Most of the questions are about sexual issues -- information they need about how they can protect themselves from this disease. One thing that is very interesting, I've noticed, is that they ask many questions about homosexuality," Mohammadi said.
In Iran, most of the reported HIV infections are related to intravenous drug use, which is increasing, especially among young men. Reports say the number of people who are being infected with HIV through unprotected sex is also on the rise.
Mohammadi believes many young Iranians don't access health services for fear of being stigmatized. He says they fear a lack of confidentiality by the clinics.
"In Iran, for example, if they undergo HIV testing, they ask questions about whether their identity will be protected or whether their information will appear somewhere else. They have many such questions," Mohammadi said.
There are about 10,000 officially recorded cases of HIV/AIDS in Iran. But experts say the real number could be as high as 40,000.
In Afghanistan, less than 30 cases of HIV/AIDS have been officially reported. But an increase in intravenous drug use means the threat of AIDS is growing. Most people in Afghanistan have little knowledge about HIV/AIDS and its methods of transmission.
In Tajikistan, 170 cases of HIV infection had been officially registered as of March 2004. But the United Nations estimates the real figure could be 10 to 20 times higher.