HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States Press Briefing: Reversing the Epidemic
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), during a press briefing in Vienna on 17 February, launched a report on the HIV/AIDS situation in East- and South Eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), entitled Reversing the Epidemic, Facts and policy options. At the same event the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) informed journalists, permanent missions and NGOs about injecting drug abusers in Central Eastern Europe. The speakers were Marcia V.J. Kran, Practice Facilitator and Chief Technical Advisor for Democratic Governance at UNDP Regional Office in Bratislava, and Christian Kroll, Senior Expert on HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse at UNODC in Vienna. The event was moderated by Ms. Sasa Gorisek, Associate Information Officer, UNIS Vienna.
Ms. Kran presented the UNDP report, which was released this morning in Vienna and Moscow simultaneously. The report is the first comprehensive survey of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 28 countries in East- and South Eastern Europe, The Baltic and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The report was completed by specialists in human development challenges in the region, and provides a platform for the discussion of policy options available to halt the spread of the disease.
A total of 1.8 million people in the region are infected by HIV/AIDS, which constitutes 0.9 percent of the adult population. Injecting drug abusers, prisoners, sex workers, migrants and displaced persons are considered as groups at high risk to be infected by HIV/AIDS. One per cent of the people in the region carry the HIV/AIDS virus, many are under the age of 30, and most of them are men. Ms. Kran added that because the virus affects the bulk of the nations' labour force this has potential macro economic implications for the respective countries, including visible negative effects on the GDP.
In order to halt the spread of the disease, Ms. Kran stressed the importance of governments addressing the problem of HIV/AIDS immediately. Political commitment from the governments is essential. Ms. Kran mentioned Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia as countries that have successfully reversed the epidemic.
The report contains concrete suggestions for how policy makers could address HIV/AIDS. The governments could mobilize more financial resources, including allocating funds from their national budgets as well as external contributions, better skilled human resources, engage in institution building, and stimulate multi agency collaboration. It is important to have an open, well-informed public debate, where potentially sensitive and politically controversial topics can be discussed.
As a final remark Ms. Kran gave three general comments, including the fact that HIV/AIDS was a unique challenge in the region, and that without targeting the epidemic, all the Millennium Development Goals were jeopardized. She added that behind all the statistics and data, there are human beings who are directly affected by the epidemic.
Mr. Kroll added figures showing that 120.000 to 180.000 people were infected by HIV/AIDS last year only, and many were injecting drug abusers. Figures from 2003 show that in Estonia 42 per cent of injecting drug abusers were HIV/AIDS infected, in Latvia 31 per cent, and in Ukraine 70 per cent. Mr. Kroll pointed out that the number of HIV/AIDS infected people was very high in prisons, due to several factors, such as easy access to drugs, sex between men, no access to condoms, no counseling and overcrowded facilities. This high level of infection in prisons poses a danger to the general public.
The briefing was followed by a questions-and-answer session. Asked to comment on the role of the homosexuality in the spread of HIV/AIDS, Mr. Kroll said that homosexual men used to be the largest high-risk group, but during the second half of the 1990s, the number of HIV/AIDS infected injecting drug abusers has exploded, especially since this group is difficult to reach.
To the question on HIV/AIDS effects on GDP, Ms. Kran answered that they do not have any exact data confirming it. Due to the fact that the workforce is diminished, with many young men infected and therefore not being able to contribute to the GDP, one can make a general assumption about the implications.
Answering the question why Estonia, generally seen as a success story, had such a high rate of HIV/AIDS, Ms. Kran said that Estonia could be seen as an exception in the report. Generally, democracy, good governance and human rights protection tend to correlate with lower rates of infection. In the case of Estonia, prisons are seen as incubators of HIV/AIDS.
In response to the questions regarding the number of women and children affected by HIV/AIDS, Mr. Kroll noted that significant numbers of children get infected by their mothers, and that many children in Romania get infected via blood transfusions.
The briefing was attended by about 25 representatives of media, NGOs and permanent missions. Individual interviews took place after the event.
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