Complacency worst enemy in Central Europe's struggle against AIDS

28-11-2003

The Czech Republic is a country with a "low-level epidemic" of HIV - the number of confirmed cases is in the hundreds, rather than the thousands. However, the real figure could be up to ten times higher, and the authorities are worried that people are becoming increasingly complacent about AIDS. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron reports

A bank of medical deep-freezes buzzing away at a laboratory in Prague's National Institute of Public Health. These freezers contain serum, plasma and cells from people believed to be infected with the HIV virus - it's the job of the lab technicians here to give a final verdict on whether someone is infected with HIV. Jaroslav Jedlicka is the country's National AIDS Programme Manager. He says infection rates throughout Central Europe remain low:

"UNAIDS considers the whole of Central Europe - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland - as an entity with the lowest HIV prevalence in almost the whole world. We are in a completely different situation than Eastern Europe."

Marie BruckovaMarie Bruckova But while the figures are low, that in turns creates problems when trying to estimate the real number of people carrying the virus. There are currently 652 Czechs and foreigners with permanent residence being treated for HIV in this country, 171 of whom have developed full-blown AIDS. But as the Institute's Marie Bruckova explains, the real number could be up to ten times higher:

"We can do some rough estimation, and this rough estimation is done on the basis of testing. We know that we can only test the people who come voluntarily for testing. Obligatory tests are done only in blood donors, and so-called routine testing is done on pregnant women."

And because the official figures are so low, people are becoming complacent. Jaroslav Jedlicka again:

"The awareness does exist, but HIV infection is underestimated by Czech citizens. It's underestimated because they know the figures. The chance of meeting an HIV positive partner here is relatively very low. So they underestimate the risk, and don't use protection."

That complacency creates a dangerous paradox. The official figures are low, so people don't practice safe sex, so the spread of HIV increases. What we don't know is by how much. Marie Bruckova says it's unlikely that Central Europe faces a large-scale AIDS epidemic like Russia or Eastern Europe. But the truth of the matter is we just don't know:

"We have a long cultural tradition and well-educated people, so if they get this information, they can accept it. Moreover the economic level is better than in Eastern countries. But you never know. We always say this epidemic is unpredictable."

28-11-2003