UNICEF has just published a new report on the growing HIV epidemic in the regions of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (entitled “Blame and Banishment: The underground HIV epidemic affecting children in Eastern Europe and Central Asia).
This exposes the problems faced by children and adults living with HIV, as well as highlighting the reasons behind the increasing number of cases – drug use, high-risk sexual behavior and the social stigma which prevents people from seeking information and treatment.
UNICEF points out that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable, exposed to multiple risks, including sexual exploitation and rising drug use. The region is home to 3.7 million injecting drug users, which equates to almost a quarter of the world’s total. To help the young, UNICEF warns that medical and civil authorities need to establish more friendly and non-judgmental services.
In Albania, the charity World Vision has been working to spread information and awareness about AIDS by using young people themselves. In October 2007, the charity started its ‘HIV Prevention and Advocacy’ project in the rural villages of Vlora, Librazhd, Shkodra, Kurbin and Lezha.
The project aims to spread awareness among the youths of these communities, by taking groups of students (45 high school and 15 university) and training them in aspects of HIV and prevention, as well as the risks of alcohol and drug abuse. These young people are known as ‘Peer Educators’, because they are then encouraged to go out and share their knowledge within their local communities, as well as to set up awareness and fund-raising initiatives of their own, like a recent AIDS Candlelight Memorial Day.
60 health personnel are also being trained through the project to increase awareness of HIV related issues and with the view to de-stigmatising the disease.
Attitudes in rural communities are particularly entrenched. But most of the recorded cases of HIV and AIDS have been registered in rural areas outside the capital, where social inequality and poverty are greater. Here there is also limited access to prevention or treatment services.
Though confirmed cases of HIV/AIDS still remain relatively low in Albania, with 350 registered (15 of whom are children) up to October 2009, there is a real danger of numbers escalating fast, particularly as migrant workers bring the disease back from other countries.
Since the 1990s, Albania has seen a continuous movement of its population both within the country and abroad, as seasonal workers travel around to find jobs. With an extremely low awareness about HIV, the population is therefore particularly vulnerable. But with projects like the ‘Peer Educators’, hopefully the message of AIDS prevention and treatment will spread more quickly than the disease can.