Stigma and discrimination: major factors fuelling the HIV epidemic


The UN Aids organisation says there's a climate of fear and ignorance about Aids - and that leads to reluctance to confront rising infection rates. But in Poland there are some positive signs of a change in attitude.

In the mid-80s, Poles with HIV and AIDS were considered social outcasts by a growing majority of Poles. Official estimates put the number of HIV-positive Poles at 8000. But according to unofficial reports up to 20 thousand people are infected. Today, tolerance levels have taken an upward swing as more and more Poles regard HIV and AIDS as a regrettable illness.

"We don't have so many drastic cases of intolerance in Poland - cases of ignorance, yes. We have a lot of problems with parents who don't even speak about sexual education with their children because they never learned about this."

17 years ago, Wojciech found out that he was HIV positive. When this father of three broke the news to his family they literally disowned him.

"We were divorced many years ago. For me it was more important to have contact with my children. Even though I couldn't see them every day, it was very important for me to hear their voices or to speak to them and to sometimes be with them."

But the tide of time has worked wonders with the healing of old wounds.

"Time is the best cure because now I have very good relationships with my three children. People now look at me as a normal person, not as a contagious person. And I can control my virus. So for this reason I'm still alive and I'm happy."

Five years ago, HIV Poles were still in dire straits looking for ways to get on the receiving end of life-saving medicines from the West. Today, Poland's ailing state-run health care system has managed to take the worry out of getting proper care. 2100 HIV-infected Poles, roughly a quarter of all registered carriers, receive therapy under the state health care system. This is one reason why Wojciech is up and around.

"I am a little bit surprised. I've been HIV-positive since 1986 so its 17 years already. I don't think about HIV every day, every hour.' In 1995 I started taking medicines and I have to take and swallow my pills every day - morning and afternoon. I changed my treatment 7 times already and the last one is very, very good. You noticed the changes in my face, and in my body. So I'm very happy because I didn't note any side effects. Some of my friends are very unlucky because they suffer a lot."

Though Poland has made remarkable progress in tolerance by toeing the line, the issue of HIV and AIDS still carries mixed emotions.

PERSON 1: "I do not have any contact with those people. I'm tolerant to the point when the problem doesn't concern me, but if it starts I'm not intolerant."

PERSON 2: "I'm scared of HIV not of a person with HIV."

As for Wojciech, his forward-looking optimism continues to help HIV positive Poles cope with the rigours of a daily pill-popping routine. Wojciech isn't losing hope that one day medical science will finally come up with a cure for HIV.