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Lithuania: European AIDS Conference Urges Education, Cooperation In Fighting Spread Of Disease

The 4th European AIDS Conference concluded over the weekend in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. It brought together delegates from almost 40 countries to discuss coordinated action to curb the spread of AIDS in Eastern Europe and call for social measures to fight the deadly disease.

Prague, 23 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The 4th European AIDS Conference -- organized under the title "Research, Policy, Prevention and Care" -- was held on 20-22 September in the Lithuanian capital. Attendees included some 750 delegates from 38 countries including Russia, Germany, Britain, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Poland, and Ukraine.

The three-day conference was supported by the United Nations and by national institutes of health from Europe and the United States. Previous conferences had taken place in Berlin in 1994, Paris in 1997, and Amsterdam in 2000.

The delegates focused their attention on coordinating efforts and social measures to curb the spread of the HIV and AIDS. They discussed a wide array of issues, including risk of the disease among young people, links to intravenous drug use, the spread of the virus in correctional facilities, and the role of non-governmental organizations in fighting AIDS.

Saulius Caplinskas, the head of the Lithuanian AIDS Center, acted as the conference chairman. He told RFE/RL that conference organizers wanted specialists from medical and social services to look together at how to better share information related to HIV and AIDS: "The main problem -- not only for Eastern Europe -- is that specialists in various fields fight the disease in isolation. This is the tendency, especially in Eastern Europe, where people working in AIDS centers are not expected to speak publicly about such [related] problems as syphilis, drug addiction, tuberculosis, the education of young people at school, or the problems of prisons."

Caplinskas says all these issues are interrelated. He says it is a mistake to leave the issue of AIDS in correctional institutions to be dealt with only by prison officials, for example, or expect that police will be able to sensitively address the link between HIV and drug addition. He says it is of vital importance to establish working links between all authorities involved in the problem -- from teachers to doctors to law-enforcement officials.

Caplinskas says Lithuania is a good example of how badly this cooperation is needed. He says the number of people infected with HIV has doubled following an outbreak of the disease in the country's Alytus penitentiary. Last summer alone, 284 inmates at Alytus were diagnosed with HIV -- an outbreak attributed to widespread use of intravenous drugs and the lack of a clean-needle program. Prison administrators have only recently been pushed to cooperate with Caplinskas's organization to help deal with the problem. The official number of Lithuanians infected with HIV now stands at 682.

Caplinskas says another challenge is that the fight against AIDS must be waged on both the local as well as governmental level: "We must do everything to ensure that this complex arrangement -- with specialists from various fields cooperating with each other -- is then conveyed to the local level, the level of local municipalities. Local authorities must work with young people and also work with risk groups."

Caplinskas says local officials are often reluctant to speak frankly about the problems of drug use or unprotected sex and prefer pretend the problem of AIDS does not exist.

Speakers at the Vilnius conference said more serious attention should be paid to the links between social problems and the spread of the HIV and AIDS. Many said the spread of the disease depends less on medical trends and on more on social and psychological factors.

Sweden's Queen Silvia, the founder of the World Childhood Foundation, said that AIDS has had a profound effect on street children and people victimized by human trafficking. She said: "Poverty, ignorance, unemployment, and desperation are the reasons why HIV is spreading so rapidly." She added: "No significant changes will ever take place if governments do not address these issues through their policies and programs."

The UN Children's Fund says in a recent report that young people comprise the majority of new AIDS cases in Eastern Europe. The report says the rise is tied to an increase in drugs use; early sexual activity and poverty.

Delegates at the Vilnius conference said current AIDS education programs often do not reach the marginal groups -- drug addicts, prisoners, and the poor -- who need it most.

Martin Mckee works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases. He tells RFE/RL that such meetings like this weekend's Vilnius conference are very important: "Particularly in respect to AIDS there is a great need for the expansion of harm-reduction schemes, needle exchange, methadone use and so on. It may be helpful for some nongovernmental organizations to be able to point out to their governments that there are things that are being done in other countries. There are some very good local programs -- not so much national programs -- but [the local programs] are examples of very good practice."

The selection of Vilnius as the site for the most recent AIDS conference is no accident. Officials say AIDS is spreading faster in Eastern Europe than in almost any other part of the world, and that the rate of infection is as much as 20 times higher than in Western Europe. There are at least 1 million people infected with HIV in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.