Friday, March 28, 2014

The Hidden Epidemic: HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Part 1

When HIV is discussed at the international level, let’s face it, most people think of Africa and Southeast Asia as the regions where HIV is spreading most rapidly. That is where most media, celebrity, and NGO attention is focused with regards to prevention and education. However, HIV/AIDS is spreading most rapidly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia [1]

To put this in context: between 2001 and 2011, the prevalence of HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia increased by 250%; during that same time period, prevalence fell by 0.8% in Africa and stabilized at 0.3% in Southeast Asia [2].  Yet despite this reality, the spread of HIV in this region receives little to no media coverage both domestically or internationally.

Due to the limited awareness and coverage on this, the SAN will be showcasing a blog series discussing the effects of stigma in Central and Eastern Europe, and what the world can do to make this problem better known. This first part of the series will serve to give you, our #StigmaWarriors, some background on the stats, policies, and social environment of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Knowing the Numbers

Approximately 1.4 million people (1% of the population) in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are living with HIV [3]. However, this is an estimate based on the current number of people who have been officially diagnosed with HIV. In reality the number may actually be higher due to underreporting, a direct result of stigma and discrimination people may experience around HIV testing and disclosure.

The countries with the largest populations of people living with HIV are Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine. Currently, Russia and Ukraine account for 90% of new cases each year in this region [4]. Below we have included a table of the HIV prevalence among adults in each country in this region.

HIV Prevalence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia:

# of adults living with HIV
Source: [5]

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, HIV/AIDS is currently concentrated, but not limited, among drug users and sex workers and their partners. Other populations affected are prisoners, MSM, and children who have parents living with HIV, but their numbers are small compared to the number of sex workers and drug users affected. 

Among drug users, approximately 20% are living with HIV, though the number could be even higher [6]. Furthermore one-quarter of the world’s injecting drug users live in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and approximately 80% of new HIV cases are transmitted via injecting drug use [7]!  Among sex workers, 11% of this population are living with HIV [8].  It is even higher for sex workers who inject drugs; 43% for Ukrainian sex workers who inject drugs, compared to 8.5% for those who do not [9]. Lack of knowledge about the spread of HIV is a leading cause of high HIV prevalence among these groups. Only 8% of sex workers in Georgia know how HIV is spread, compared to 29% in Moldova and 36% in Uzbekistan [10]. It is also believed that the spread of HIV has been allowed to escalate due to very little funds targeting drug users, sex workers, and MSM, This is confirmed by UNAIDS Regional Program Adviser Roman Gailevich, who stated: "Governments everywhere are reluctant to spend money on sex workers, on drug users, but MSM comes at the top of the reluctance list. It is probably the last programs that the governments will start." [11]

Policy and Social Issues

Given the aforementioned statistics, it should come as no surprise that currently in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, HIV/AIDS is met with secrecy and derision , and HIV-related stigmas discourage testing and treatment – even at the policy level. Let consider the policies in Russia, for example. The Russian government does not allow harm reduction policies, such as needle-sharing programs because they claim it would threaten drug prevention programs by encouraging people to use injectable drugs [12]. Additionally, HIV treatment centers are separated from the rest of the medical community [13]. This is particularly troubling, not only because it inhibits individuals from receiving treatment, but as a result of the new gay propaganda laws, the threat of violence, social alienation, and arrest this has amplified individual’s concerns of being seen entering a HIV clinic and being perceived as gay.

These policies inform people’s perspectives on HIV and fuel stigma. Stigma is so prevalent that many of those who know their HIV status state that they do not fear dying as much as they fear the stigma associated with HIV [14]. The ugly reality for people living with HIV in this region, though it is applicable in other settings, is that they are more likely to be discriminated against when looking for employment, and there is a lack of confidential legal avenues for people living with HIV could to use to prevent such discrimination. As one man living with HIV in Georgia said:

"I know beforehand my status will certainly hinder the chance to get job or to be promoted… I do not search for a job as I think they will have a negative attitude towards me." [15]

Not even children are protected from HIV stigma. About 75% of parents of schoolchildren stated they would remove their child from school if they found out there was a child living with HIV attending the school [16], and one schoolteacher remarked:

 “Yes they [people living with HIV] are really dangerous. I think that such children [living with HIV] should not attend neither schools nor kindergarten as the other children will be safe”. [17]

Consequently, many children are forced to hide their status, until they are out-ed vis-à-vis a stamp on their national IDs that all people living with HIV are forced to carry [18].

This leads to much internalized shame and stigma, and explains why HIV is growing so rapidly in-country.

Until Next Time…

It is clear that there is a long way to go before the stigma facing people living with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is gone. The quality of life for those living with HIV is highly unstable, due to stigma and poor quality of medical care. This is a setback to the prevention of HIV, and to the quality of life for such individuals.
  • What do you think about this issue?
  • Why do you think HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe/Central Asia hasn't been discussed much in the media?
  • What do you think can be done to bring more attention to this?

Be sure to look out for our next post, where we will be discussing inter-country programs, and the various successes and failures of individual countries in implementing HIV prevention, treatment, and anti-stigma programs.

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