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

Georgia: AIDS Taboo Slow to Shift

Medical experts worry that HIV infection is spreading to new groups in society.
A couple of years ago, I went into a chemist’s shop and told the smiling shop assistant that I had dropped in to buy an immunity strengthening medication, that I had AIDS,” a 37-year-old man told this reporter at Tbilisi’s AIDS and Immunology Centre. “His kindness just vanished into thin air. He threw the drugs on the counter and hastily left the room.”

Georgia has been living with the threat of HIV/AIDS for many years, but now medical experts are worried that the condition is spreading beyond its core group - drug-users - while the population at large is still largely ignorant and tolerant of the disease.

A total of 107 new cases of HIV infection, including five in pregnant women, have been recorded since the beginning of the year.

“This fact troubles us a lot,” said Maia Tsintsadze, a doctor at the AIDS and Clinical Immunology Centre. “AIDS used to occur mostly in drug-addicts and people who were promiscuous in their sexual relationships, but now it has begun to spread among people outside these groups.”

Last year, the Georgia government devised a new three million US dollar strategic plan to fight HIV/AIDS. One of the plan’s main goals is to help overcome the stigma of those suffering from HIV infection.

The main emphasis is on youth education, with lectures for university students and medical staff and cultural and sports events which will provide information about the realities of AIDS.

Since 2005, AIDS patients have also had access to a free specific antiretroviral treatment, sponsored by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Tengiz Tsinadze, director of the Centre for AIDS and Clinical Immunology, admitted, “This year no money has been allocated for educational goals. But the Global Fund and the UN agencies are funding educational activities.”

Attitudes in Georgian society are slow to shift and people infected with HIV continue to be ostracised.

Last August, ten-year-old Mariam Kintsurashvili died of AIDS in the West Georgian town of Kutaisi. In 2000, she had received a blood transfusion from a donor, who it turned out was HIV-positive.

It transpired that the girl was one of at least 19 people infected by this donor. One of them is Lamzira Chaladze. The woman had a blood transfusion because of some complications with her pregnancy and two months later gave birth to an HIV-infected child.

Chaladze is almost the only HIV-sufferer in Georgia, who speaks openly about her disease and who even went to court to assert her rights. A Kutaisi court upheld her complaint and forced the town’s blood bank, which had supplied the infected blood, to pay the Chaladze family compensation of 20,000 laris (12,000 dollars).

A doctor named Mirian Kvinikadze was found culpable for the incident and dismissed. The donor, whose blood infected 19 people, has never been traced.

Yet, Chaladze’s bravery only brought more suffering on her head. Her neighbours and acquaintances began avoiding her and made her withdraw her infected son from kindergarten. The family was forced to move house.

The experts say that public awareness about what causes HIV infection in Georgia is still extremely low.

“There was a case, when a man was evicted from a flat he rented and had all his things thrown into the street by his landlords after they had found out that he had AIDS,” said Tsintsadze. “AIDS patients and their children have a lot of problems in educational establishments too. There are frequently cases when they are refused medical aid. This makes them aggressive.”

Georgia’s first AIDS patient was registered in 1989 and there has been a steady rise in cases since then. A total of 270 people have subsequently died.

On May 1 this year, there were 1280 people officially diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. However, these figures are widely agreed to be a substantial underestimate of the real numbers.

The World Health Organisation estimates there could be as many as 12,000 HIV-sufferers in Georgia and warns, “Georgia is experiencing a nascent epidemic.”

Up until now, up to two-thirds of those infected were drug users. Now other groups are affected. The specialists are especially worried about a growing number of cases of infection amongst pregnant women.

Fifty HIV-positive pregnant women have been registered so far, five of them this year.

Tsintsadze said in most cases the babies had been born uninfected. “There have been only two cases, in which mothers transmitted the infection to their babies,” she said. “This is because they did not undergo proper prophylactic treatment. In all other cases, babies were born absolutely healthy.”

Tamuna, 28, say she contracted HIV from her husband and found out about it only when she was pregnant.

“I wanted to die,” she told IWPR. “The foetus was already well-developed by the time, and the pregnancy couldn’t be terminated. My doctor did everything to ensure a healthy baby. He gave me antiretroviral treatment and explained that I should have a caesarean section to reduce the risk of the infection being passed to the child.

“When it was time to give birth, all the maternity homes I applied to refused to admit me for the operation. It was terrible - knowing that I had a chance and doctors, who are sworn to do whatever can help save lives, are denying you this chance. So I gave birth full of fear. But God was merciful to us, and my baby was born healthy.”

The 37-year-old man at the AIDS and Clinical Immunology Centre has lived with the terrible diagnosis for four years now.

“One night a few months ago, I had toothache,” he recalled. “It was so terrible I couldn’t wait till the morning and went to a 24-hour dental clinic. When I told the dentist that I was HIV-infected, she made a great noise and was so rude that if she hadn’t been a woman, I would have lost control.”

All this, psychologists say, is a sign that society is still a long way from understanding the plight of HIV-sufferers.

“The lack of understanding and aggression on the part of the society can lead an infected person to withdraw into himself, become more aggressive and hide his disease from people around him, thus endangering their health as well as his own,” said psychologist Lela Kurdgelashvili of the Tanadgoma (Support) Foundation.

“A person, who goes to the dentist’s and declares honestly that he is HIV-infected only to encounter aggression, may not want to be so honest when he visits the dentist next time. You can judge for yourself what this will lead to.”

“The disaster that happened to me could have happened to anyone,” said Chaladze. “But the most terrible part of it was how society and the state reacted to my disease.”

Nino Janelidze is a freelance journalist working in Tbilisi.

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