|Drug user in Odessa injecting needle|
ODESSA, 7 May 2004—Still caught in the transition from a former Soviet country to a modern society, the Ukraine has become one of Europe’s epicentres of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with numbers of affected people increasing daily. Situated at a key crossroads between Asian suppliers and western European consumers, Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa is a primary entry point for illicit drugs. The heavy drug trafficking has multiplied the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on Ukraine, exacerbating the ongoing struggle with political, economic and social problems. According to UNAIDS, surveys have estimated that there are up to 600,000 injecting drug users in the Ukraine, most of whom are young.
In 2002, Ukraine registered the highest, and among the fastest-growing, rates of HIV infection in all of Eastern Europe. The spread of HIV is being driven by injecting drug use and, to a lesser but growing extent, unsafe sex among young people. Cases of parent-to-child transmissions have shot up. Today 40 percent of those infected with HIV/AIDS in Ukraine are women. Some 97 percent of HIV-positive children were infected by their mothers.
|Children playing at an orphanage in Odessa|
A rising number of HIV harm reduction centres have been opened throughout the country. One of these is the Way Home Centre, which was founded in 1996 and which is Odessa’s first and most frequented harm reduction centre. Way Home Centre chemist Natalya Kitsenko says that education plays a vital role in the fight against the epidemic.
“People need to understand that as of today there are already medicines which can decrease the speed of the virus’ spread in the body. In order to get these medicines, one has to go to a polyclinic, one needs to be tested. But our drug users, they sort of avoid that. They don’t go to hospitals. One of our outreach programme’s main goals is to explain that today it’s already possible to extend life…For this one needs to go to a doctor and get tested.”
Nevertheless, the social stigma of being infected with HIV/AIDS continues. Many drug users are afraid to seek help. Only a few have confronted the disease.
One of them is Lera Maksimova, a former star on the national handball team and mother of a five-year-old HIV-positive daughter. The 27-year-old started injecting drugs at a very young age and became infected with HIV when she was only 18. Traumatized by her past, Lera joined the Life+ centre in order to help children living with HIV/AIDS and to provide counselling to their parents. For Lera, this job—her first ever—has become a life-changing experience.
“I saw these little kids who aren’t any different from healthy ones, and I thought of my daughter. She’s the same as them, also sick, and I looked at them and I was shocked—their parents refuse to give them medicine or they don’t care for them because they are out shooting up or drinking—and I just thought, if I don’t do it, who will?”
According to Jeremy Hartley, UNICEF’S representative in Ukraine, the country’s fight against HIV/AIDS is now beginning to show results. And Hartley believes there is reason for optimism.
“Ukraine has been very successful in prevention of transmission of HIV from mothers to their newborn infants. Over 90 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women are now receiving anti-retroviral treatment, as are their newborn babies, and this success story is being shared with other countries, hopefully allowing them to replicate this experience.”
UNICEF supports all efforts of the Ukrainian Government in the prevention of parent-to-child transmission of HIV. These interventions are also included in state programmes on AIDS prevention and reproductive health.
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