Positive Women in Ukraine: Living with Denial, Discrimination and HIV/AIDS

World AIDS Campaign 2004: Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS

A large republic in the east of Europe, Ukraine is the country hardest hit by HIV/AIDS in the region. An estimated 360,000 people - nearly 1% of country's population - are currently living with HIV. More than 70% of them are injecting drug users (IDU) who became infected through sharing used syringe needles.

But drugs are not the only thing driving the AIDS epidemic in the Ukraine. HIV infection is rising sharply among the general population. "HIV is not just drug users' problem anymore. It's everywhere now," said Svetlana Antonyak, an experienced HIV/AIDS physician at Kiev's Lavra clinic. In April 2004, half of the new HIV cases in her clinic were not drugs users at all. "This shows HIV/AIDS is now a broader social problem that concerns everyone in the country," she said.

According to the UNAIDS 2004 global epidemiological report, women and young people are the most vulnerable groups to HIV infection. In Ukraine, 120 000 people - some 30 per cent - of all people living with HIV are women. Lack of awareness of the right information regarding HIV infection is a major contributing factor.

"I got HIV, because I did foolish things without reflecting how much devastation it can bring to my life," says Valeria, from Odessa.

Valeria, HIV positive mother and activist says, "HIV positive children should enjoy full rights for treatment and schooling, just like other children." (WHO/Viktor Suvorov)

Valeria contracted HIV when she was 18, injecting drugs with friends. Like many others she didn't know that she might become infected with HIV by sharing used needles.

Since then she had to live with the devastating consequences. One of the first people in the country to be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Valeria says she has faced extreme discrimination. She was rejected by those around her, she lost her sports career as a member of the national women's volleyball team and was forced to give up her university studies. Faced with such rejection and discrimination, Valeria says she lost her self confidence and plunged deeper into drug addiction.

Ten years on and Valeria has turned her life around. She works as a treatment counsellor for Life+, an NGO providing self-help and counselling services to people living with HIV/AIDS.

She is also in charge of the day-care centre for HIV positive children and is fierce in fighting against stigma and discrimination towards children living with AIDS. She's faced this first hand, as her daughter was born with HIV. "Many nurses and doctors are scared of providing services to people and even children living with HIV," she said, describing how a nurse refused to take a blood sample from her daughter for her first HIV test.

"I had to take the blood myself", confirms Valeria. "Safety conditions are not always perfect in our clinics but they shouldn't bear actions to violate our human rights."

Further discrimination followed Valeria's daughter. With 'HIV' featured in her health records, no kindergarten or school would admit her. "Children are at no fault, they have a right to schooling and treatment, just like other children," said Valeria.

Olga: "The hope with ART made me stronger with every passing day." (WHO/Viktor Suvorov)

Olga is an HIV+ mother of five children. Currently she is healthy and able to support her family, but there was a time when doctors told her that she might have only days to live.

She started antiretroviral treatment (ART) a year and a half ago. "I didn't even have the side effects that doctors warn might happen. The hope ART gave me to live again and see my children grow up made me stronger with every passing day," says Olga.

But she regrets fifteen years of her life and a career as a school teacher lost to drug addiction and the devastation it brought to her life. "I am hopeful that my children won't repeat this life," she sighs, explaining that drug use is as common a problem today as it was when she was addicted. Opium is easily produced in households and commonly sold and exchanged within communities. "In my district it's easier to count who doesn't use drugs than to count who does. Most of the people I know, do," Olga explained.

In the suburban Odessa, 27-year old Tatyana, a former medical lab worker, is one of some thirty patients in the AIDS Clinic. "I didn't inject drugs, never smoked 'grass' in my life but still I couldn't avoid AIDS," said Tatyana, who also has a four-year old daughter living with HIV.

Tatyana, 27, saw people die in Odessa AIDS clinic, but she's fighting back, taking ARVs. (WHO/Viktor Suvorov)

Only a handful of all people living with HIV/AIDS receive ART, and Tatyana is one of the lucky ones. She looks pale, but feels strong and reassures us that she is full of hope now that she is receiving effective treatment.

"I have meningitis and if I didn't have antiretroviral treatment I would have been dead already. I saw seven people die in this clinic in the space of one month," she said.

ART is scarcely available in Ukraine, only 197 out of 4,000 people who need it, get it.

A programme to increase access to ART, spearheaded by non-governmental organizations and the public health sector, is currently being set up and a specialist training centre, supported by the World Health Organization and GTZ, the German Development Agency, is updating doctors and nurses on simplified treatment protocols.

- By Tunga Namjilsuren