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HIV Report Highlights Infection Risks in Central Asia

IWPR journalists said to have raised awareness about threat posed by disease in the region.
By Dina Tokbaeva, Inga Sikorskaya

The in-depth report HIV Alarm in Central Asia published on May 21 has been credited with providing information that will be used by international organisations, NGOs and experts working on HIV/AIDS prevention.

The report showed that while HIV is not nearly as prevalent among Central Asians who go abroad in search of work as it is among specific risk groups like drug users and commercial sex workers, the sheer number and mobility of migrants means that the virus can spread rapidly from carrier to family members distributed over a wide cross-section of society.

Vasily Esenamanov, HIV programme adviser with the Central Asia office of DanChurchAid and ICCO, who was quoted in the original article, said its publication was good for raising awareness about the issues, and had also helped make people more familiar with his organisation’s activities.

“We have received a positive reaction to the article from the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime in Vienna,” he said. “Our own regional office opened in Kyrgyzstan only at the end of 2008, so the article will help us with greater visibility in the region. People will find out more about use through your newsletter.”

The Congress of Women of Kyrgyzstan, which is working on HIV prevention in the migrant community, plans to incorporate the report’s findings in a published research study.

The IWPR article “should be read by as many representatives of the government agencies responsible for national-level decision-making as possible”, said the group’s head Zamira Akbagysheva.

Akbagysheva said the report was objective and presented a diversity of views, while avoiding unhelpful sensationalisation. It was also useful to get a comparative view of how HIV is being handled in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the three countries from which most migrant labour comes.

Local media coverage often veers between scaremongering and ignoring the problem, which can leave HIV carriers stigmatised or marginalised, she said. “In that context, it’s very important how information about HIV/AIDS is reported,” she added.

Elina Karakulova, media coordinator for the HIV/AIDS programme run by the UN Development Programme in Bishkek, said the agency would use the report in its efforts to dispel popular myths about the virus.

Karakulova said the article set out the reasons why migrants were at risk of infection, rather than making them scapegoats for the spread of HIV, as sometimes happened.

“The fact that most labour migrants are not well-informed reflects the general situation in the country,” she said. “More than 70 per cent of young people in Kyrgyzstan have a mistaken understanding of HIV. In other words, this level of awareness means the risk of infection exists as much home as it does abroad.”

Experts in Uzbekistan, where the authorities have been reluctant to publish data on HIV, said such an honest disclosure of the facts is key to getting national governments to tackle the problem.

“We never get told that the situation is critical,” said a doctor in Tashkent. “It is good that there are independent internet news sources doing their own social research.”

Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR Kyrgyzstan editor. Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR's chief editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 

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