HIV positive in Georgia
There are a large number of cases of individuals, particularly men, who become infected and return home to Georgia with more than just money in their pockets. While the Southern Caucasus countries have an overall low HIV infection rate – the approximate number of HIV positive persons varies between 2 to 3,000 registered cases per country – there is an increasing level of risk of contracting HIV in these countries, particularly among high risk groups.
Let’s call him Dato. He’s 35 years old and in the prime of his life. Dato left Georgia in his early adolescence to seek a better tomorrow. He found his new home in Ukraine, following the suit of many Caucasian migrant labourers, mostly men, who travel to Ukraine and Russia, often illegally and undocumented, to seek work. Far away from home, Dato enjoyed life without reflecting on his vulnerability. Dato contracted HIV in Ukraine and shortly after began to suffer from an infection that left him partially blind.
As the situation worsened the young man became desperate for solutions. Ultimately, the Georgian Consulate in Kiev made arrangements to return him to Georgia for several surgeries to reduce his risks of becoming completely blind. Having been away so long from Georgia, however, Dato was now without family or friends with whom he could stay after his surgeries. Anti-retroviral therapy was not recommended in his early stage of the illness and thus he had no right to be based in a state-funded AIDS Centre. But to place him in a homeless shelter required that rules be bent. Namely, that he claims an HIV-free status.
Dato’s story serves as just one example. By speaking with people from the non-governmental sector and the AIDS Centres working with HIV positive persons in Georgia, it becomes quickly apparent that there are a large number of cases of individuals, particularly men, who become infected and return home to Georgia with more than just money in their pockets. While the Southern Caucasus countries have an overall low HIV infection rate – the approximate number of HIV positive persons varies between two to three thousand registered cases per country – there is an increasing level of risk of contracting HIV in these countries, particularly among high risk groups such as drug users, sex workers and homosexuals.
Females in danger
The prevalence of HIV infection cases is highest among injection drug users; however there is an increasing trend of heterosexual transmission, particularly to unsuspecting women. In Muslim Azerbaijan and the Orthodox Christian countries of Armenia, Georgia and Russia, males’ extramarital relations are dismissively expected and passively accepted, especially in cases where the breadwinner is far from home.
Many economic migrants leave their country of origin for seasonal work and return once the work is finished. During this time they face stress and challenges related to being away from their network of support typical of a Caucasian family, to their hard working hours, and, for many, to their illegal status. It is no surprise therefore that while in these countries – with some of the highest HIV prevalence in all of Europe – many engage in risky behaviour. Combine this with the fact that male contraception is not well utilized in the Caucasus and that women have limited options in negotiating safe sex, and the risk to women becomes all the more obvious.
Let's speak out and act, now!
To speak openly about HIV, one can hardly avoid the topic of sex – heterosexual, homosexual and commercial. This may be a key reason why people lack information about how the disease is transmitted. Such intimate topics are considered extremely taboo and not appropriate to be discussed, particularly in public. The situation is gradually improving thanks to the work of non-governmental organizations and governmental representatives, to prevent a spike in the HIV rate similar to that which occurred in Ukraine and Russia. While decision makers are aware of the need to react in a timely manner to prevent further transmission of the disease, however, resources to do so are highly limited.
Four years ago, the Southern Caucasus countries joined efforts to effectively respond to the issue of HIV and mobility by focusing on community based activities. Currently, World Vision offices in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia, collectively with their local partners, are collaborating in the implementation of a two-year project funded by the European Commission.
This project includes intervention at three levels. At a community level, project implementers identify the needs of health care providers, teachers, youth workers, church leaders and social workers, and equip and mobilize them to spread HIV awareness accurately and effectively. At a national level, the project implementers, in collaboration with project stakeholders, develop and present advocacy material and conduct advocacy activities to highlight connections between migration and HIV. And at a regional level, the project allows a friendly, apolitical opportunity for stakeholders to share their experiences, lessons learned, and best practices with regard to developing sustainable solutions for people living with HIV and preventing further spread of HIV.
Written by: Katerina Zezulkova