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Ukraine: Media Campaign Tackles Ignorance About AIDS

A new mass media campaign launched in Kyiv this week seeks to inform Ukrainians about HIV/AIDS and encourage acceptance and support for those living with the virus. As Lily Hyde reports for RFE/RL, many people remain ignorant of the cause of HIV despite Ukraine's epidemic level of infection.

Kyiv, 21 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since its first case of HIV was registered in 1987, Ukraine has seen the most rapid spread of the virus of any country in Europe. A quarter-of-a-million people in Ukraine are now thought to be HIV-positive -- more than in any other state of the former Soviet Union.

Yet ignorance of what the infection is and how it can be contracted is still widespread. People living with HIV/AIDS are often ostracized in Ukrainian society, and their basic rights blatantly abused.

A new public awareness campaign is seeking to tackle that trend by using ads like this television spot depicting a group of young men and women talking about an HIV-positive friend:

"Over three years ago our friend became infected with HIV. But that doesn't affect our relationship. I realized he doesn't need my pity. Now I don't have to blame him simply to conceal my own fears. When I learned more about the virus, my fears went away. We interact naturally and sometimes we even forget that he is HIV-infected. Perhaps you also need information or you want to know how to deal with your emotions. Get acquainted with the facts or learn from the experience of other people."

The ad, meant to challenge popular prejudices about HIV/AIDS, is part of a mass-media campaign launched this week in Kyiv by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), or MSF. The France-based international aid agency has been working in Ukraine since 1999 in the field of HIV prevention, treatment, and care.

The new campaign, titled "You should know more about HIV/AIDS," also includes booklets, radio spots, billboards, and a website. It offers clear information and accounts of personal encounters with people living with HIV/AIDS. Its organizers hope the campaign will encourage people to find out more about the infection so they can cope more positively with acquaintances who are infected by the virus.

Volodymyr Zhovtyak works for the recently founded All-Ukrainian Network of People living with HIV/AIDS. He told our correspondent that public disapproval of those diagnosed as HIV-positive was one of the major problems facing his group.

"This question really worries us, the attitude of society to those of us who are HIV-positive. Many of us are afraid to speak openly about this problem because we are afraid of the consequences. How will our relatives react? What about the people we work with? This campaign for tolerance toward people living with HIV is really necessary."

MSF chose to stress the need for solidarity with those living with HIV after taking a survey of over 1,000 Ukrainians to find out their attitudes toward the infection. The results showed many misconceptions about the way HIV is spread and a related fear of those with HIV or AIDS.

A large number of respondents erroneously believed they could catch HIV from casual contact, such as from someone's sneeze, or by being served in a restaurant by an HIV-positive waiter. More than half of them said they would avoid contact with people with HIV and slightly less than half (47 percent) said such people should be separated from society.

Prem Abramova, the MSF campaign's coordinator, told RFE/RL that HIV, because it can be spread through unprotected sexual relations or shared drug needles, is commonly associated with stereotypes of immoral behavior.

"Stigmatization is really present. People associate people living with HIV/AIDS with risk groups, with injecting drug users and with sex work [that is, prostitution], with uncontrolled sexual behavior. Most people really do not have any idea of who HIV-infected people are, how they live, where you can meet them."

The results of these misconceptions and prejudices can be devastating for people already reeling from a positive HIV diagnosis. Ukraine offers no systematic counseling either before or after testing, and test results, although legally confidential, sometimes leak out. Abramova wants Ukrainians to accept those with HIV no matter what their background or how they contracted the infection.

"People are blamed by their family and friends, they are rejected, they are quite often fired from jobs, and medical workers usually mistreat people with HIV/AIDS. What we are trying to say is that these people are real, they have their own feelings, their own background and history and plans, and that whoever they are you don't need to be afraid [of them]."

Zhovtyak and his colleagues at the All-Ukrainian network, who assisted in setting up the MSF project, are working toward the same end by supporting self-help groups and providing training and literature on different aspects of HIV. Members, who have only to be HIV-positive to join, now number about 250. If MSF's campaign is successful, they and many more Ukrainians living with HIV/AIDS may be able to take their rightful place as accepted members of society.