HIV/AIDS: no right to be happy?

Fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS is the focus for fifty eastern European and central Asian countries who have gathered in Moscow today. In Russia, discrimination also adds to the burden of HIV-positive people.

Russian officials say there are approximately 300,000 HIV-positive people living in Russia, but the UN says that number is likely to be much higher – at around one million.

The majority of the new cases are intravenous drug users, blamed on the flow of heroin smuggled in from Afghanistan. One of the Moscow forum’s key tasks is to coordinate better viral prevention and control and increase access to treatment.

Social prejudices strong in Russia

More than 44% of Russians try to distance themselves from those who are HIV-positive, said Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health at the Moscow conference.

Those people said they would change their child’s nursery or school if it turned out that HIV-positive kids attend it, Onishchenko noted.

According to him, such stigmatization seriously hampers medical care for those suffering and the effectiveness of preventive measures taken in the country to stop the spread of the disease. He pointed out that he is concerned over the lack of information provided on the subject for schoolchildren and students.

“The wish to stay away from those suffering results in driving the problem underground,” said the chief medical officer.

Another issue he brought up is those who become isolated because of such an attitude. He says such people are mostly ignorant of their social rights and duties.

Thinking positive when “positive”

Svetlana Izambayeva is a young mother who goes through the same diapers, bottles, tears and cries that any other parent has to endure every day, but with one exception – she is HIV-positive. Her life is a race against time, yet she is appreciative of what she has.

“He is so, so wonderful,” she says about her toddler-son. “And she’s so beautiful,” she says of her older daughter. “I always want to be with them,” Svetlana exclaims.

Just a decade ago Svetlana would have little chance of seeing her children grow up. Both she and her husband were HIV-positive before they met. But with new drugs preventing their condition from developing into AIDS, their life expectancy can be just the same as everybody else’s. So much so, that they came to see their virus as more of a blessing than a curse.

“I’m happy with my life and I think we both owe it to our diagnosis,” husband Ilnur Mukhametkhanov said. “If it wasn’t for HIV, we may have never met.”

Give birth to children? Yes. Adopt? No

However, both Ilnur and Svetlana’s lives are not idyllic by any means. The drugs can keep the virus from ravaging their health, but the social side-effects of HIV/AIDS are still very damaging.

HIV/AIDS still has no cure, but it’s no longer a death sentence. While the new drugs can significantly prolong patients’ lives by strengthening their deficient immune system, they still leave Svetlana, her husband and thousands of others suffering from the ignorant attitudes of others.

While there is no law that can stop Svetlana from being a biological mother, HIV-positive people in Russia are still facing hurdles adopting children. When Svetlana’s parents died, her younger brother Sasha went to live at an orphanage rather than with his own sister.

A few days ago Sasha turned ten, which gives him the right to file a personal petition with the state adoption agency. He’s written it – he says he wants to live with his sister.

It is now up to Svetlana to deliver the petition to the agency. For the past nine months, she’s been collecting all sorts of documents to secure custody, but in the end it all comes down to her HIV status.

“There is a governmental decree that bans people with infectious diseases, including HIV, from adopting children,” explained Lyudmila Ivanova, from the state adoption agency, who washes her hands of the affair:

“It may be misleading, but it’s not in my power to change it.”

Even though there has been talk of changing the rules prohibiting adoption by HIV sufferers, they still remain on the books. For the meantime, both Svetlana and her perfectly healthy brother will continue to be discriminated against.