HIV/AIDS awareness decreasing among Czech society

08-12-2003

HIVHIV At the end of October, there were 625 registered cases of HIV infection on record, of which 175 were cases of full-blown AIDS. These, of course, are just the registered cases and the actual number could be ten times higher. But even then would the country be considered one with a low-level incidence of HIV. Nevertheless, experts warn that statistics could shoot up to unexpected levels.

"My name is Jaroslav Jedlicka, I'm the National AIDS Programme Manager in the Czech Republic and I'm also representing UNAIDS in the country. People know very well what HIV is and how to protect against sexually transmitted infection but a very low number of people actually protect themselves against it. So, the use of condoms is very low in this country. It's not a good sign."

At the end of October, there were 625 registered cases of HIV infection on record, of which 175 were cases of full-blown AIDS. These, of course, are just the registered cases and the actual number could be ten times higher. But even then would the country be considered one with a low-level incidence of HIV. Nevertheless, experts such as Mr Jedlicka warn that the lack of funds for AIDS awareness programmes, the influx of foreigners from countries with AIDS epidemics, combined with Czech society's traditional nonchalance towards AIDS protection, could see statistics shoot up to reach alarming levels.

"We are struggling with finances. Our budget stands at around 700,000 Euros per year and we need to finance all preventive activities, the treatment of HIV positive people, services, and HIV testing in the field. Of course, the influx of new citizens from the eastern part of Europe also represents a big problem for us because these people have already been infected by sexual intercourse or injecting drug use and live in this area for many years. They either work in the sex industry or live like other citizens and pose new risks for other citizens as well. We also have a low number of injecting drug users and you know that when the HIV virus enters this population, it may reach an HIV prevalence of fifty percent in a year. So, we have to also focus on people who inject drugs, so they do not share needles and syringes, and offer good needle exchange programmes and other services for drug users."

"My name is Vladimir Kovac. I'm a client at AIDS Pomoc, a Czech organisation that helps people with AIDS. I've also been active in their AIDS prevention programmes and support HIV patients. I myself have been HIV positive since January 2001. I contracted the disease when I was a drug addict. I was an intra-venous drug user and got infected using a dirty needle."

In the three years that Vladimir Kovac has lived with the disease, he has been dependent on a daily cocktail of a dozen anti-retroviral drugs to keep him from progressing from HIV to AIDS. Vladimir is well aware that the medical treatment available today will not save him for ever and has made it his mission to use the time he has left to educated people on HIV/AIDS and help those worse off than him:

"I wake up, go through the usual morning routine and go to work. I often attend seminars on HIV during which people discuss what life for an HIV patient is like, how one should behave around him, what would help him feel like any other healthy person - this is where we teach people that contact is very important, the kiss on the cheek makes a difference. People learn that HIV patients can live a normal life. I also prepare materials on AIDS prevention and visit HIV patients at Prague's Bulovka hospital. As far as my personal life is concerned, I live with my partner and spend my free time with him doing the usual things like going to the theatre, the cinema, and visiting art galleries."

Jiri Hromada is from Gay Iniciativa, a Czech organisation that has been fighting for the rights of the country's gay community and contributing to spreading AIDS awareness:

"It is difficult to assess how Czechs view HIV patients because the sort of discrimination that prevails in this country is the 'hidden' and less publicised type. There is one simple reason for that: people have little contact with HIV patients. The gay minority in the Czech Republic has managed to make itself visible with its fight for registered partnership that triggered numerous media reports, which led to much more public discussion. But there aren't many HIV positive people in the country and Czechs therefore rarely meet an HIV patient. They therefore have a distant relationship with the HIV problem. When they are confronted with meeting an HIV patient they react in ways that could be termed as discriminatory, such as in the area of employment, dealing with HIV positive activists, etc. It is a dangerous syndrome that Czech society has!"

Vladimir Kovac: "We get quite a bit of negativity from society - no doubt - but we cannot get angry about it, as it is something we ought to expect! I always say to myself that they will be informed some day and will come to understand what we go through. Rather than anger, I feel sadness because there is not enough information out there. I have noticed, though, that things have improved since last year. From the various seminars I go to, I see that children already know what HIV is - it's an incurable disease. The fact is that there is little money available to increase the number of preventive materials distributed among society and tailored to specific groups, such as the gay community, for example."

According to Jiri Hromada, the Czech Republic started off quite well after the fall of Communism. From 1992 to 1997, it devoted a significant sum out of the state budget to AIDS awareness activities. Famous personalities participated in these events and the media featured many more reports, articles and TV spots on this topic. These series of events proved that public tolerance, combined with media coverage, can make a difference. The bad news is that the financial state support for such activities has dropped every year since 1997. The public's awareness of the seriousness of HIV is automatically decreasing, making Czechs feel that it no longer is a threatening problem.

08-12-2003