BAKU, 5th of July – 1NEWS.AZ As the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud stated, "recognition of the problem is half of its resolution”. Thus, frank recognition of HIV risk existing in Azerbaijan can help combat the spread of this disease.
In despite of the fact that official statistics of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) prevalence in Azerbaijan does not bind beating alarm, as opposed to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, up trend is observed over the past seven years.
Among the youth, which is the main risk group, 108 people became infected with the virus in 2012, while only three years ago, this figure covered 92 and in 2006 - 54 people.
Thus, over the last seven years, in Azerbaijan cases of infection with HIV increased by fifty percent among young people aged between 19 and 29 years. According to official figures, total number of the HIV infected in the country is about 4 thousand.
"In the Eastern neighborhood countries of the EU, as in all Europe, many young people are not aware of their HIV status. However, it is extremely important not only for gaining access to life-saving treatment, but also for prevention of HIV infection, "- said the representative of youth and adolescent development program of UNICEF Aida Aylarova.
Facilitating the access of young people to counseling and testing to detect HIV infection is the main objective of the project implemented by UNICEF in Azerbaijan under the slogan "Know your HIV status”.
To this effect, works are carried out actively for the last six months for raising the youth’s awareness on the risk of infection, possibilities for protection, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are actively involved in these works, efforts are made for eliminating legislative barriers preventing young people from testing.
EU-funded three-year project covers four countries alongside with Azerbaijan: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Georgia. Expanding access to HIV counseling and testing is the most important aspect of the EU strategy for combating the disease.
Main barrier to testing
According to the Director of the AIDS Center in Baku Esmira Almamedova, today the main problem preventing young people from resolving to go through HIV test is unawareness of the substance of the issue, false beliefs and lack of responsibility for their health.
"I would not do the analysis, and none of my friends would, neither girls nor boys - says 19-year-old Gunay. Probably, because hardly anybody knows much about this issue. Girls are shy, and boys generally consider going to the doctors beneath their dignity.
24-year-old Abbas is sure that this problem has nothing to do with him. “I am almost always protected, I am not a drug addict, never was a donor, and do blood tests rarely. So, it's not about hesitating, I just don’t see any reason for being checked, "- he says.
"Sometimes I think about being checked for the sake of prevention. Perhaps, necessary, but I am lazy», - adds Abbas.
Role of non-governmental organizations
Non-governmental organizations and social workers are involved in the process just for attracting more young people, finding the right approach, appropriate to their age and characteristics, and for raising their awareness of importance of the test.
«Contributions of the social worker is extremely important. For the youth, it is easier to turn to the worker in connection with their problem than to a representative of any official organization. Social workers have learned how to talk to young people; they know how to win over a person, "- said the representative of the NGO Struggle against AIDS, Sarvar Sharifov.
Employees of this NGO participating in the project were able to win trust of a large number of young people pertaining to risk group. First of all, these are former injecting drug users. In parallel to special treatment, they meet regularly at the offices of the organization which serve them as a place of communication.
For a lot of people, the organization also became an opportunity for getting on their feet financially, and for helping other people facing the same problem. Thus, a person works in the NGO- Struggle Against AIDS who lives with HIV for 17 years already, and who is a living example of steadfastness and love of life for their wards.
«With my own example, I explain to children that, they should not fear the word- HIV». It is not fatal, - he says. - But it is important to be checked up in time, know your status, and then with appropriate treatment you can live to be old"
Knowing about your HIV-positive status and timely medical care can help to prevent serious diseases that provoke the virus on the background of extreme immunosuppression. Oncology and tuberculosis are among them.
32 medical centers where you can get confidential and absolutely free HIV test, function in Azerbaijan since 2011. These centres also provide special treatment, which is free -of charge as well. Today, the most advanced way for minimizing the viral load in human body is antiretroviral therapy. It is a spectrum of medicine in the form of tablets to be taken twice a day.
«Treatment makes patient’s life easier and reduces the risk of infection for the people around. This specific treatment allows extending patient’s life and improving its quality, "- says the head of the AIDS center Esmira Almamedova, who stresses that daily treatment should continue consistently and for life-time.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has already transferred HIV from the category of deadly diseases to the category of complex chronic.
According Esmira Almamedova, there is no reason to be skeptical about the quality of products and professionalism of AIDS centers operating under the supervision of the Ministry of Health of Azerbaijan.
However, mistrust to doctors is one of the barriers preventing young people from resolving to take the test. Moreover, most of them do not know exactly where they need to be checked, and that the test is free of charge.
"Any visit to doctor means stress, loss of time and a waste of money - says 28 year old Renat. - Moreover, you don’t trust doctors”.
“I would never take such an important test in an ordinary clinic - says Jamila, 27 years old. - Only in specialized institutions, and preferably in the presence of foreign doctors. "
«How HIV is transmitted? Probably through various routes - says 22 years old Lala. – may be through air?”
According to surveys made by UNICEF, 7% of young respondents in Azerbaijan have never heard about HIV. Large percentage of respondents has mistaken opinion about the routes of transmission of the virus.
Thus, 6% believe that you can catch the virus sharing dishes, 4% believe that shared bathroom - is a source of threat, and 4% believe that even a mosquito bite is dangerous. Another 4% of respondents chose the answer "do not know” when asked about routes of HIV transmission
“All these are just myth. HIV is transmitted only through blood and sexual contact, "- says Esmira Almamedova.
With the view of raising awareness of Azerbaijani youth, AIDS center in collaboration with a number of NGOs held several voluntary counseling and testing events at three universities, two shopping centers and in an entertainment and concert venue in Baku. In total over 4-5 days, the event covered more than 4 thousand students, and in general more than 5 thousand people.
“Alongside with testing, it was a good opportunity to provide young people with information during direct communication and with the help of distributed booklets", - says the head of the AIDS center.
According to world statistics, 70-80% of infections occur as the result of unprotected sexual contact, 5-10% of the cases due to injecting drug use with shared needles, and in 5-10% of cases, the virus is transmitted from a pregnant or nursing mother to child, 3-5 % due to infected blood transfusion, and less than 0.01% is composed of infected professional health care workers.
In Azerbaijan, major routes of infection are injecting drug use (about 60% of cases) and unprotected sex (about 30%). Occurrence of other cases is minimal.
Elimination of the legislative barriers reducing youth’s access to HIV testing and counseling is also among components of the project. Thus, Azerbaijani legislation was reviewed by an independent lawyer in connection with gaps in this area.
"One of the main recommendations was reduction of the age limit for taking a test without parental consent from 18 to 16 years" - says independent expert Ramil Iskandarli, who was involved in the project through the National Assembly of Youth Organizations of Azerbaijan (NAYORA).
According to the representative NAYORA Seymour Huseynov, teenagers are not likely to discuss such problems with parents and as the result of such restrictions young people of this age simply do not apply for testing.
Another recommendation to the government was wider involvement of non-governmental organizations dealing with the issues of drug addiction and healthy lifestyle in the organization of mobile points of HIV testing and counseling.
"We assume that this measure will enable reaching out to wider risk groups - said Huseynov. NGO work method is based on informal communication. Therefore, their involvement allows convincing young people to take the test”.
Among recommendations are also introduction in Azerbaijan of non-traditional methods of HIV testing, says lawyer Ramil Iskandarli. An example is the saliva testing, which is widely practiced in many countries; it is safe and gives quite reliable result.