Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Armenia AIDS Threat Growing
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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