Accessibility links

AIDS Sufferers Battle Disease, Social Prejudice

Kyrgyz students in Bishkek hold banners with red ribbons to symbolize AIDS awareness on World AIDS Day.

Kyrgyz students in Bishkek hold banners with red ribbons to symbolize AIDS awareness on World AIDS Day.

(RFE/RL) -- "In the beginning, I was very afraid," says Olga, a 28-year-old woman in Moldova, describing how she felt after testing positive for AIDS.

"I didn't know how much longer I would live, how I would live.... But at least I don't feel guilty. For instance, people who get infected by using drugs have remorse, but in my case...if I did something wrong, I have forgiven myself and I try to carry on."

Olga's story is commonplace in many parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where some 1.5 million adults and children are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.

UNAIDS, a UN agency that tracks the progress of the epidemic, reports that some 20,000 people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia were infected with HIV in 2007. Another 14,000 people died of AIDS.

Last year, about 2 million people worldwide died of AIDS. They include people in all parts of the globe, without regard to gender or lifestyles.

At the same time, another 2.5 million people were infected with HIV. The virus can multiply rapidly in the body, leading immediately to the full-blown AIDS disease. Symptoms include the collapse of the body's immune system, massive weight loss, and, finally, death. Or, the virus can lie dormant in a body for years, like a time bomb waiting to go off.

Today, some 33 million people have that time bomb inside them. They are infected with HIV and either show no immediate effects from it or take medicine to slow the virus's ability to multiply. They, too, are in every part of the world and in every society.

Fighting HIV, Prejudice

Over the last three decades, much progress has been made in developing the medicines needed to suppress HIV and allow people infected with it to live longer lives. But efforts to prevent the transmission of the virus or to help the people who are infected remain complicated by social prejudices.

"I had a job, and when they found out [that she is HIV-positive] they said, 'No offense, you have to go,'" Olga from Moldova says.

Prejudices and misinformation about the disease have helped to spread it even as those who fall victim are shunned. The disease is traditionally associated with gay males, because they were the first victims. But today, as the virus spreads in multiple ways, some 50 percent of those infected are women and girls.

"Conditions are different in every country," says Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Russian Federal AIDS Prevention Center.

"For example, in the United States and most Western European countries, the main category of HIV-infected people are homosexual males, while in Russia it is the least affected high-risk group. On the contrary, in Spain, Russia, and Ukraine, it is drug users that constitute the main category where the virus is spreading most rapidly."

How can people best protect themselves from AIDS? By having protected sex, not having multiple sex partners, and not sharing needles when injecting drugs.

But if this seems simple advice, AIDS workers find that people still feel they somehow can ignore the warnings.

"The situation in the Russian Federation has suddenly worsened, also in Ukraine. And of course this has an impact on us [in Moldova]," says Varfolomei Calmac of Moldova's Health Ministry.

"Our youth have sources of information about AIDS, but the situation is still getting worse. We had 600 new cases of AIDS in 2007, and 300 in the first half of this year. The problem is not a lack of awareness or incompetence -- although there's still a lot to be done on that, too. The problem is that our young people are not responding as they should to this danger."

Some Progress, More Needed

As public officials continue to look for ways to prevent the spread of AIDS, there has been great progress. Worldwide, the number of new infections fell from 3 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2007.

But the thing everyone hopes for -- a cure for AIDS -- remains unknown.

Medical researchers say the obstacle to finding a cure is precisely the time-bomb nature of the HIV virus. Once a person is infected, the virus moves deep within the nucleus of his or her cells. There it is largely safe from attacks by doctors, because any drug that could destroy it would be far too toxic for healthy cells to withstand.

For this reason, all the drugs developed to suppress the virus have focused on inhibiting the virus's ability to replicate itself and multiply through the body. Great progress has been made, with some drug combinations -- or cocktails -- allowing infected patients to live normally for decades.

Still, the drug cocktails are expensive and reducing their cost is essential to making them more widely available. More than 90 percent of people infected with HIV are concentrated in the developing world.

Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, says that there are close to 4 million people worldwide who now are being treated with antiviral drugs but another 8 million people still need them.

He and other health experts worry that the current global financial crisis could slow the progress in getting help to those who need it. As part of World AIDS Day, UNAIDS is calling on world leaders to make battling the disease a continuing priority.

RFE/RL's Moldovan and Russian services contributed to this report
Russia's HIV Orphans

Tatyana Voltskaya, RFE/RL's Russian Service

Women with HIV face severe discrimination within Russia's heath-care system, and their children often become outcasts.

During medical visits, they face hostility and violations of privacy. Instead of offering them free antiretroviral therapy, which reduces the risk of mother-child transmission of the virus to 1 percent, physicians often advise them to terminate their pregnancies.

HIV-positive women who go on to have their babies usually abandon them at birth. Some parents give up their children at a later stage, when they run into harsh treatment by doctors and employees of children's institutions, and are denied access to both school and preschool.

Although kindergartens and schools cannot legally turn HIV-positive children away, it happens on a regular basis.

And despite the medical advances of the past 20 years, HIV/AIDS continues to be surrounded by myths.

"Some 70 percent of people believe an HIV-positive waiter in a restaurant can easily infect them. And 60 percent think HIV can be transmitted through kissing," says Yevgeny Voronin, the head of the Republican Hospital for Infectious Diseases outside St. Petersburg, Russia's only institution for HIV-positive orphans.

"This is very sad. Adults can choose to keep away from such people. But what can a child do, especially an orphan, when the person caring for him is full of these prejudices?"

Abandoned children who fail to be placed in a orphanage can spend years in hospitals, their sole human contact being nurses in gloves and masks. These children don't grow mentally or physically, and their chances of finding an adoptive family are close to none. Most of them are not sick, they are treated unfairly simply because of their mothers' condition.