All eyes on youth at First National AIDS Conference
Call for partnership sets the stage for the “Youth against AIDS” conference in Baku
By Ali Verdiyev
BAKU, December 2007 - Top ranking members of the Azerbaijani government, civil society, international organizations and young people have joined at the national conference in Baku to discuss the most uneasy aspects of the global AIDS epidemic and ways to include young people in the country’s response to HIV and AIDS.
“Azerbaijan is still a low-prevalence country in terms of HIV/AIDS, but it seems to be spreading quickly among high-risk groups largely in Baku. It is time for urgent action before the epidemic breaks into the general population”, Dr. Sadik told the conference.
“Young people like yourselves are in a special position. You run higher risks of contracting HIV/AIDS, but you are also key to holding back the epidemic and eventually ending it entirely”, she noted.
“HIV/AIDS is a social problem, but first of all it is a disease. The most important step you can take as young people is to drag HIV/AIDS into the light, encourage everyone to look at it like any other disease, treat it and prevent it from spreading”, Dr. Sadik underlined.
Organized by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Youth and Sport, the Ministry of Health, UNICEF, USAIDS and the Future Initiative youth foundation on 15 December, the first national conference “Youth against AIDS” was designed to talk to young people across the country, trying to raise awareness, as well as to fight stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS.
Youth in focus
“Young people are at the center of the AIDS epidemic – they are most directly affected. That is why it is absolutely vital to do everything we can to ensure their rights to be informed about AIDS, we need to talk about AIDS, even about those aspects we feel less comfortable discussing, like sex and drugs,” said UNICEF representative in Azerbaijan Hanaa Singer.
“They need to have access to health services, to a safe and supportive environment free of exploitation and abuse. But most of all, they have a right to have their voices heard. We cannot work just for young people, but we have to work with them, involve them, let them participate and take control of their lives”, said Ms. Singer.
“We must act now and together. For the greatest results in slowing this disease will only come from partnerships – with governments, businesses, universities, NGOs, religious organizations, communities, families, the media – and the young. So let us seize the moment”, Ms. Singer concluded.
Drug use, migration count
With rapid economic growth due to an influx of petrodollars over the past few years, Azerbaijan has also seen increasing rates of HIV/AIDS as 300 new infection cases this year added to almost a thousand existing ones. But some experts believe that the real number of HIV infected people might be ten times as high. HIV is characterized as “a concentrated epidemic” in Azerbaijan with more than half of the cases (58%) found among injecting drug users, which makes it necessary to expand needle distribution and harm reduction programs for such a high-risk group.
Thousands of able-bodied people are estimated to have left Azerbaijan for Ukraine and Russia, the countries with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Asia, for the past decade in quest of jobs. They are believed to represent a ‘risk factor’ for their families after they come back.
Migration appears to be key factor influencing HIV risk behaviour since data from 2006 suggest that 34.3% HIV positive Azerbaijan citizens were infected outside the country during migration.
As a response to this trend, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation led by the first lady of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, UNICEF and the Ministry of Youth and Sport have reached initial agreement to draft programs and projects providing education and awareness raising among migrant workers.
Participants adopted a final document of the conference – the Baku Declaration expressing loyalty to the principles of the UN Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Dublin Declaration on Partnership to fight HIV/AIDS in Europe and Central Asia and the Toronto Conference. The Declaration praises the improvement of the HIV surveillance and care system in Azerbaijan, calling for more comprehensive and sustainable action to fight the disease. It stressed the importance of amending Azerbaijan’s HIV/AIDS law, which was made in 1996, in line with the new situation in the country and the legal practice in the world in preventing the spread of HIV and protecting the rights of those infected with the virus.
Given the impact of HIV on the health and development of the new generation, the Declaration once again urges state agencies, non-governmental organizations, youth groups and individuals to be active in fighting the epidemic.