TBLISI, Georgia — Until recently, HIV prevalence here was concentrated among at-risk groups: injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, and sex workers. So HIV was not something that Anna, a happily married young mother, had ever worried about.
Then her husband, who had used drugs in the past, became ill, and she learned that she, too, carried the virus.
“We had quiet and a happy life. We had a child and he had started to work. Everything was fine, everything was OK, and we did not have any fights ever - we had a really good family and we were very happy,” she said. “I did not have any idea about the disease.”
HIV transmission through heterosexual contact has sharply increased during the past few years, and currently represents 34 per cent of new cases. Women are increasingly at risk – 90 percent of HIV positive women received their infections through heterosexual contact. And the rate of infections among 15-24 year old women is three times higher than for their male counterparts.
New freedoms – and risks
Many of these young women, as shown in this video, are experiencing new sexual freedom, but often lack the information and services they need to protect themselves.
Although Anna has been left a widow, one consolation is that her young daughter is free of the virus. The peer-support and counselling she receives from the HIV/AIDS Support Centre in Tblisi, which is supported by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is also helpful to her in coping with the implications of her HIV status.
It is not something she feels she can share with those closest to her. Her parents don’t know that her husband died of AIDS or that she is HIV positive.
“No, they don’t know and I cannot tell them,” she said. “If my family knew about it, I don’t know, they will go crazy, they will be anxious. I would have to explain everything to them and calm them down and this is why I don’t tell them... In any case, telling them will not help me. “
Stigma compounds the suffering
Stigma and discrimination against HIV positive persons is common in Georgia, and compounds the suffering. “If others mention this disease, they are very negative about it. I know that if I tell some of my friends, they will avoid me,” she says. “I know what their reaction will be and what think about this disease. I am sure that they will avoid me and I will lose them.”
That’s one of the reasons it is so important for Georgia to do a better job of spreading accurate information about HIV, according to Dr. Lela Bakradze, UNFPA Georgia Programme Analyst. “Acceptance towards people with HIV is very low. We need to increase education and knowledge of people about this issue to decrease stigma and discrimination.”
It is also crucial that young people understand that they are increasingly at risk, and that interventions are tailored to help them protect themselves are offered, she said.
Reaching out to young people
“It is very important that HIV is integrated into reproductive health services and proper information and education is provided to young people about HIV and AIDS. There is a real need to have a national programme on life skills and health education where reproductive health issues and HIV issues are well integrated and tailored to different age groups and provided in high schools as part of a national curriculum.”
UNFPA helps Georgia reach young people by providing youth-friendly reproductive health services and information and integrating HIV prevention, as well as voluntary testing and counseling, into these services. Progammes also target out-of-school children, especially through youth summer camps, with specifically designed information and education sessions conducted by peer educators trained by UNFPA.
During the last three years, UNFPA has succeeded in reaching 33,000 young people in youth summer camps with information and messages about reproductive health and HIV prevention. “It’s been a huge step in terms of raising the awareness about HIV issues and reproductive health issues among young people,” said Dr. Bakradze.
— Raquel Wexler