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

Bosnia “in Denial” About AIDS

Government accused of burying its head in the sand over increasing HIV menace.
By Sejla Dizdarevic

In the sleepy central Bosnian town of Travnik, a medicine man claims to have discovered a secret that has eluded scientists and doctors the world over. For a small amount of money, scared and desperate HIV and AIDS sufferers, are being offered a miracle cure for the deadly virus.

“I can cure all illnesses – even the conventionally incurable ones such as AIDS, cancer and heart disease,” he told IWPR after we contacted him through one of his many newspaper adverts.

“After all, AIDS is only a group of illnesses that is caused by failure of one’s immune system,” the doctor continued, adding that his secret natural treatment allows the body to fight and defeat disease by itself.

“Simply send me the money and I will pop the medicine in the post for you,” he added cheerfully.

The doctor is not short of patients. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, government neglect, ignorance and prejudice are combining to assist HIV infection which, it's believed, is being spread through growing intravenous drug abuse and prostitution.

Now officials have been told by international organisations that steps must be taken if an epidemic is to be avoided.

The official number of HIV and AIDS cases in the country – 56 – has been described as “a serious underestimate” by western agencies; UNAIDS, the joint United Nations programme on HIV and AIDS, warned that the small figure has encouraged a false sense of security in the country.

The organisation’s regional coordinator Jane Gronow told IWPR, “[The authorities] can say that the figures are low thus the priority is low – that there are more important problems. We would describe this approach as burying one's head in the sand.”

Amna Kurbegovic, HIV/AIDS project officer for the UN childrens’ agency, UNICEF, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told IWPR that there had been an explosion of cases across the border in Serbia.

“Thousands of people in Serbia are now living with HIV/AIDS, and there has also been a significant rise in the number of registered cases in Croatia lately,” she said.

“Bosnia is the only country in the region with an officially small number of registered cases, and it hasn't been officially declared a high-risk country. Still, the situation in the region shows that this is not a realistic picture.”

The greatest problem in determining the actual situation in the country is a lack of coordination between government institutions, which are divided on an entity level. It was only last year that the two national HIV/AIDS coordinators from the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska got together and compiled data for the whole country.

The other problem is that the majority of people are reluctant to come forward for testing as it is neither free nor confidential, unlike elsewhere in Europe.

Gronow warned that certain high-risk groups such as sex workers and drug users could be spreading the virus without realising it, “ In this part of the world these groups are discriminated against, so they mostly hide their behaviour.”

There is a strong stigma around the disease, and those associated with it are often ostracised by their communities.

UNICEF’s Kurbegovic said that during a recent survey conducted on the streets of Bosnia, canvassers heard a great deal of extreme opinions on HIV positive people and those suffering from AIDS. A common stance was “they should all be killed”, she said.

As a result, people are often too fearful to ask for the most basic information on the virus.

The first AIDS case in the country was registered in 1986. It involved a Bosnian man who lived in Africa for a time, and was thought to have become infected there.

However, when he admitted his HIV positive status, he was rejected by society, his wife lost her job and his children had to change schools.

After that, HIV positive people were a lot more discreet about their status, and very few have ever admitted their illness to the media – such secrecy has only added to the general ignorance of the population.

Sejla Dizdarevic is a Sarajevo-based journalist.