AIDS Retains Stigma in Eastern Europe
Jun. 02, 2006
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) _ Adrian Calea found out he was HIV positive when he accidentally saw a doctor's note in his mother's purse when he was 10. Two years later, he learned on the Internet exactly what that meant.
``I thought about slitting my wrist,'' he said. ``But then, I thought if I am going to die of this disease, at least I am going to go down fighting.''
Calea is now 18, a student and hip-hop artist, healthy because of a cocktail of antiretroviral drugs. He is one of more than 7,000 Romanian children who were infected between 1987 and 1990 because the communist regime made it a practice to re-use syringes and give transfusions of untested blood.
Romania ended up with half the HIV-positive children in Europe.
The dirty needles are long gone. But a quarter century after AIDS was discovered, many HIV-infected people in Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe continue to struggle with discrimination and poverty.
Calea was forced to drop out of school in the southern Romanian city of Alexandria when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1998. The principal told his family that other parents would protest.
He now plans to play his music and visit schools to raise awareness about AIDS. He is probably the first HIV-infected person in Romania to publicize his condition to fight the stigma.
But AIDS remains controversial.
After officially denying the existence of AIDS during the communist years, Romania now requires AIDS tests for people getting married or applying for jobs _ a rule activists say perpetuates discrimination.
Health experts warn that infection rates in Eastern Europe will skyrocket if countries fail to adopt more pragmatic policies.
Ukraine has a national AIDS law that is recognized as a model in the region because it incorporates human rights protections for people living with HIV/AIDS. But the law is often disregarded, with patients often turned away by doctors when they seek help.
Ukrainian officials say more than 80,000 people have been registered HIV-positive since the first reported case in 1987. But other experts say as many as 500,000 people _ 1 percent of Ukraine's population _ could be infected.
Human Rights Watch accused the government this year of police abuse and medical discrimination against HIV/AIDS victims. The official stigma means HIV-infected people are marginalized _ forced into isolation in hospitals or their homes.
In Russia, there are 334,000 registered HIV-infected people. But the U.N. AIDS agency puts the figure at nearly 900,000 and others say the total could be above 1 million _ around 1 percent of Russia's population.
The disease is rapidly spreading beyond traditional risk groups _ drug users, gay men and prostitutes _ into the wider Russian population through unprotected heterosexual sex, with young people particularly vulnerable.
In Romania, about 11,000 people have HIV or AIDS, with about 350-500 new infections per year. However, infections could increase as the country's HIV children grow up into adulthood.
Parents in Romania are not required to inform the children they are infected until they are 18. Experts say the age should be lowered to 14.
Adrian Streinu-Cercel, who coordinates Romania's AIDS program, said about 20 percent of HIV-positive children are still unaware they are infected because parents are afraid to tell them.
``They already ask their parents 'why do we take so many pills?''' said Streinu-Cercel.
Calea hopes to spearhead a new rights movement and wants to encourage others to come out about their condition, saying that he felt liberated after he stopped denying that he was HIV-positive.
``Instead of waiting around, hoping for the elusive vaccine, we should try to improve our situation,'' he said. ``I want to fight against discrimination ... It's about my future.''
Associated Press writers Mara Bellaby in Kiev and Henry Meyer in Moscow contributed to this report.