Prejudice drives HIV victims underground

Published: 22 May 2002 0:00 CET

Svetlana Zhelyazkova in Sofia and John Sparrow in Budapest

As a global Red Cross Red Crescent campaign against HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination gathered momentum here, the Bulgarian Red Cross pointed to a secret world of suffering where HIV-positive people hide themselves and their health problems.

Dr. Sofia Stoimenova, head of the Bulgarian Red Cross international department, said: "Making contact with them is often difficult because many are afraid to reveal either their identities or the state of their health. We know these people face great obstacles in their everyday life, but they remain introverted, preferring to live in a world of their own."

Their feelings and fears, she said, stemmed from the intolerance around them. "Most Bulgarians are prejudiced against people living with HIV/AIDS, and society is not prepared to accept them or their families, let alone their problems."

Her comments came as an annual Christian Orthodox candlelight mass to commemorate AIDS victims, brought together Red Cross staff and volunteers, people living with HIV/AIDS, Red Cross partners in the Bulgarian Anti-AIDS Coalition, and many citizens of Sofia in the capital's 16th century Sveti Sedmotsislenitsi (Holy Seven) church on Sunday. The Bulgarian case, she said, reflected the importance of the Red Cross Red Crescent global campaign. With its signature of The truth about AIDS. PASS IT ON..., it aims to ensure that people who are HIV-positive, or have AIDS, are able to receive appropriate care, have access to affordable drugs, and can live full and useful lives within their communities. At the same time it will work to increase individuals' willingness to be tested and help to prevent a further spread of the infection.

Fuelling national debate in Bulgaria isn't easy. The country has a low HIV incidence. Last month official statistics from the ministry of health showed a mere 367 people were HIV-positive. Indeed, since 1986, only 60 people are known to have died of AIDS-related causes. Some 80 per cent of infections were transmitted through heterosexual sex, and 70 per cent of victims are between 20 and 39.

But there is an urgent need for expanded prevention, particularly with eastern European countries showing the world's fastest-rising infection rates, and the Bulgarian Red Cross has long warned of a false sense of security. The truth about AIDS in Bulgaria is that specialists believe HIV infections could be at least ten times the official figure. Moreover, there is a high rate of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including a rise in syphilis and hepatitis B. Experience shows that where STDs gain ground, HIV/AIDS is not far behind. Besides reflecting unsafe sexual behaviour, STDs provide conduits for the AIDS virus through inflammations and lesions.

Dr. Stoimenova also underscored an incorrect perception of the disease, which results in a limited number of people voluntarily testing for HIV. "A lot of Bulgarians think that AIDS is a gay and prostitute's disease," she said. "Yearly in our country, around 250,000 people test but most of them are blood or tissue donors, pregnant women or people who have worked abroad."

Worrying the Red Cross is the fact that diagnosis is coming late. "Internationally it has been proved that nine out of ten people infected do not know they are. Bulgaria is not an exception," added Dr. Stoimenova.

The Bulgarian Red Cross has been telling the truth about AIDS since 1985, and was the first national organization to challenge the reluctance of the Communist state and its health care institutions to face up to reality. It has campaigned ever since, trained thousands of young people on HIV/AIDS prevention, and assisted victims. Its programmes today include psychological assistance through a Red Cross telephone hotline.

When it launched the new campaign on 8 May, World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, its volunteers were on the streets again, distributing advice, literature and condoms. The Bulgarian Anti-AIDS Coalition has itself adopted the campaign signature for its summer activity. The truth about AIDS is being passed on in central Europe.

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