First, soccer coaches and team officials attend UNICEF-sponsored workshops. Once they know more about the health risks associated with HIV/AIDS and drug abuse, they conduct informal seminars with young soccer players during training and on match days.
Gulsara Osorova is an assistant projects officer for UNICEF in the capital, Bishkek. She told RFE/RL that soccer is the most popular participatory sport for Kyrgyz youth and a great vehicle for getting messages across. "This campaign is really unique in Central Asia,” she said. “[Soccer] is one of the greatest games that young people easily go to in Kyrgyzstan. This is a kind of pilot project at this stage, and I'm sure it will be developed further because the feedback is really great. And this campaign is happening at all levels -- in district, regional, and republican levels."
The Kyrgyz Soccer Federation estimates that the campaign will reach some 100,000 young people across Kyrgyzstan this year. The UN says HIV prevention seminars have already been conducted for 60 of the country's estimated 400 soccer coaches.
Medet Bukuev chairs the Coordination Council of Kyrgyzstan's Mini Soccer Association. He said his organization is also involved in HIV/AIDS and drug-abuse campaigns among young soccer players. "We are planning to organize a big international tournament in the next few months here in Kyrgyzstan," he said. "This international contest will be an action against AIDS and drugs. Soccer teams from five countries -- Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan -- are expected to participate in the tournament."
During the matches, Bukuev said, leaflets will be distributed and debates will be held among spectators.
There has been a steep rise in the number of HIV infections in Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, 470 new infections were reported last year, but the real figure is believed to be at least 10 times higher. Those infected are mostly young male drug users, as the flow of Afghan-produced heroin continues to be trafficked through the region to Russia and Europe. In the next few years, the disease is expected to be transmitted sexually to the wider population.
Dmitrii Usenko works for the nongovernmental organization Reproductive Health Alliance of Kyrgyzstan. "This campaign is very important for Kyrgyzstan because it allows us to attract the attention of the population -- young people especially -- to the problems of HIV and sexual reproductive health," he said. "It's very important for young people to know more about safe sexual practices because young people have very dangerous sexual behavior."
Surveys show that adolescent boys in Kyrgyzstan are more likely than girls to experiment with drugs and to become sexually active at a younger age. The majority of those infected with HIV in Kyrgyzstan are young men between the ages of 15 and 29.
(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, contributed to this report.)