Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia AIDS Threat Growing

A mobile population, drug use and low levels of public awareness feed HIV infection rates.
By

Varduhi found out she was HIV-positive in 2000, but since the subject is

rarely if ever discussed in Armenia, only her closest relatives know.



Varduhi (not her real name), now 32, contracted HIV through sexual

intercourse with her husband, who had been infected by a shared needle.



"We were living in Russia," recalled Varduhi. "My husband was an intravenous

drug user. He was infected, and without knowing about it passed it on to

me."



Their child is not HIV-positive.



Increasing numbers of people in Armenia are acquiring HIV, which can lead to

AIDS. Experts attribute the rise to substantial population movement to and

from Russia, where many Armenians go to work as labour migrants. A secondary

factor in the spread of HIV is the low level of public awareness about

prevention and treatment.



Varduhi, who is a housewife, does not look ill and the only sign she has HIV

is the course of medication she takes on a rigid schedule.



"Some people are ignorant about how HIV can be transmitted, but they know

it's an infectious disease that can't be cured," she said. "That's why when

I tell them I am infected, they get scared and take care that we don't meet

ever again after that. Many people are well aware of the means of

transmission, but once they learn that [I am HIV-positive], they begin to

avoid me.



"I want to tell my story openly to warn people that they should be more

careful; to make them understand that HIV can happen not just to a drug-user

or a prostitute, but to an ordinary housewife like me as well."



Armenia's first case of HIV-infection was recorded in 1988. Since then, 528

people have been diagnosed with the condition, 99 of them this year, a

record compared with previous years.



Samvel Grigorian, director of Armenia's Republican Centre for AIDS

Prevention, said the figures should not be regarded as a sign of an

epidemic. He said the rise in recorded cases was attributable to better

diagnostic testing in Armenia, to the greater availability of HIV tests and

centres where they can be carried out, and to increased public awareness

about the virus.



"Over the past three years, the incidence of HIV among the most vulnerable

population groups has gone down or remained stable," he said.



However, specialists estimate that there are around 3,000 HIV-positive

people in Armenia who have never been tested for the infection and are

unaware they have it.



The population as a whole remains very poorly informed about the issue of

HIV/AIDS, and people who are HIV-positive are never seen or heard on

television and radio.



In most Armenian families, parents prefer not to talk to their children

about the issue. Schools have no specialist literature at their disposal and

do not include discussion of HIV and AIDS in the curriculum. Only a handful

of public organisations are vocal about it, but they work on a small scale

and most young people are too ignorant and shy to discuss it.



Ara Babloyan, the head of the Armenian parliament's commission on health,

environment and social issues, told IWPR that a programme is being drafted

for the schools which will deal with health issues, with special attention

to sexual health. But he could not put a date on when the programme would be

launched.



The most frequent recorded methods of HIV transmission are intravenous drug

use and heterosexual intercourse, which account for around 49 and around 45

per cent of all cases, respectively. Just under half of the cases are in the

capital Yerevan. Almost three-quarters of HIV-positive people are in the

20-29 age-group.



All those who have contracted the virus from shared syringes are male.



Rafael Ohanian, another member of the Republican Centre for AIDS Prevention,

said cases of HIV acquired as a result of having multiple sexual partners

were increasingly prevalent.



A public organization named Real World, Real People has brought together

HIV-positive people and provides them with social and psychological support

as well as legal assistance.



The group's co-chairman, Hovhannes Madoyan, said migration was the major

original cause of HIV in Armenia.



"The main importers of HIV into Armenia are men who've gone to work in

Russia and Ukraine," said Madoyan. "When they return home, they infect their

wives. Of the 99 people recorded this year as carrying HIV, 57 got infected

in Russia and Ukraine, and a further ten were their wives."



Elmira Bakhshinian, another specialist on HIV, says that within Armenia,

deep-set prejudices and misconceptions make it easier for the virus to

spread unchecked.



"Today there are a great many HIV-sufferers who got infected because they

knew nothing about the ways the disease is transmitted. They thought it was

a problem belonging to Africa or some other countries, and were sure it

posed no danger whatsoever to themselves," said Bakhshinian. "As for our

women - in most cases they get infected because they don't have the right to

tell their husbands to behave properly."



Armen (not his real name) is 38 years old. A former drug addict, he got the

infection through needle-sharing and passed it on unwittingly to his wife.



"I learned that I had HIV in 2004," he said. "I am sure HIV is now spreading

very rapidly in Armenia. The figures seem modest, but for a country with a

small population they are quite high. I wish they would talk more about the

problem to make young people take more precautions. It's very important to

me, as I have a teenage daughter."



Armen says even the medical profession is prejudiced.



"The way doctors treat us makes us keep silent about our status," said

Armen. "For example, when I went to the dentist, I used to tell them I was

HIV-positive, but then they refused to treat me. Now I know better and I

only tell them I have hepatitis-C and that they should sterilise their

instruments thoroughly. Hepatitis is also incurable, but I mention it

instead because it doesn't lead to the same kind of discrimination."



Armen's close friends and relatives know about his condition, but with

others he is discreet, worrying that he will never find a job and that his

family will face harassment if people find out.



"One of my friends died of the disease," he said. "His neighbours found out

about it from a doctor who'd treated him, and began shunning his family

members, avoiding him in the street or not saying hello. His family was

forced to sell their flat and move to another area."



Lilit Harutiunian is a correspondent with the Armenian service of Radio

Liberty.

More IWPR's Global Voices