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Azerbaijan Slow to Tackle HIV Health Needs

Fewer recorded cases than Russia, but country needs more specialised clinics offering treatment.
By Vafa Zeynalova
  • Ehtiram Pashayev, deputy director of the Public Organisation Against AIDS. (Photo: Vafa Zeynalova)
    Ehtiram Pashayev, deputy director of the Public Organisation Against AIDS. (Photo: Vafa Zeynalova)

Azerbaijan’s HIV-infection rate may still be low, but its health service is ill-equipped to cope, and the stigma and prejudice surrounding carriers make it hard for them to seek help.

Aslan, a 32-year-old who asked not to be identified by his last name, became infected in prison, when he started injecting drugs.

Now on the outside, he is not in work, as he worries about how potential employers would react to hearing he was an HIV carrier.

His sister Ayten said Aslan’s condition was traumatic for the whole family.

“Society regards him as a lost soul, someone who can’t just go through a course of treatment, re-emerge and go back to work,” she said. “The state is supposed to pay benefits to those who are infected, but we don’t receive it.”

According to official figures, there were around 2,600 HIV-positive people in Azerbaijan at the end of last year, with about 450 new cases recorded in both 2010 and 2009. Of the total, 244 individuals developed AIDS, and 52 died.

As of the beginning of 2010, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations’ specialist agency UNAIDS said the incidence of HIV was 24 per 100,000 people. Eight out of ten were male, and six out of ten contracted HIV from shared needle use, most of the rest from sexual contact.

Although the recorded per capita incidence of HIV is significantly lower than in Russia or Ukraine, where it is over one per cent of the adult population, Azerbaijan’s healthcare system is struggling to cope with existing and new cases.

In theory, HIV-positive people in Azerbaijan have access to retroviral drug treatments that can support the immune system and block the development of AIDS. Most, however, live far from the few centres where the treatment is available.

Ehtiram Pashayev, deputy director of the Public Organisation Against AIDS, said that in the capital Baku, treatment and therapy were provided in two specialist clinics places, while outside Baku the situation was even worse.

“State AIDS centres have been planned for a long time. But HIV-infected people living in the provinces have to travel to Baku for anti-retroviral treatment,” he said,

Living in Sumgait, only 30 kilometres north of Baku, Aslan is relatively fortunate, but even he finds it hard to make the trip to a clinic.

“My brother has difficulties going to Baku every day for the procedure, taking the morning bus on an empty stomach,” Ayten said. “Six years ago they promised a dispensing clinic would be opened here in Sumgait, but it’s yet to happen.”

Some HIV-infected people report difficulties in claiming benefits, and in even getting the certificate they require from the national testing centre to get disabled status.

“They didn’t want to certify me as disabled for a very long time,” Amid, 24, told IWPR. “They said I should come back later, when my condition had got worse. That’s despite the fact that since I’m HIV-positive, I have a right to benefits.”

Pashayev said people often came to him for help in pressing a benefit claim.

“HIV-infected people are automatically classified as category-three disabled, while those with AIDS, are in category two,” he explained.

Activists working on HIV/AIDS issues cite wider problems of discrimination in employment and education.

Elchin Mustafayev, head of the group Support to People Living with HIV, said he often had to engage lawyers to defend people.

“It often happens that someone with AIDS is sacked from work. Not long ago, we stood up for an HIV-positive child who hadn’t been accepted into a kindergarten,” he said.

Mustafayev’s organisation is part of a network of 32 NGOs supported by the Open Society Institute, which distribute needles and condoms to drug users and sex workers.

His groups also tries to help women whose husbands transmit HIV to them after contracting it while working as migrant labour in Russia.

Vafa Zeynalova is an IWPR-trained reporter in Azerbaijan.

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