The Vermont People With AIDS Coalition and Vermont CARES Host HIV Advocates from Ukraine By Roy Belcher Recently local and global HIV activist Gus Nasmith of Rutland hosted two colleagues from Ukraine while they were here for a conference. Svitlana and Oleksiy were representing the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS at the 2014 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) that was held March 3-6th in Boston. At Gus’ suggestion Vermont CARES and the Vermont PWA Coalition hosted a community forum to share his guests valuable insights from across the globe.
While meeting over lunch at the Montpelier offices of Vermont CARES the discussion touched on many topics. Our guests were incredibly open and well spoken about the state of HIV prevention and treatment in their native Ukraine. Perhaps most surprising was the amount of similarity between the challenges facing Svitlana and Oleksiy’s organization and their Vermont counterparts. Issues of psychosocial support, nutrition, housing, adequate funding, stigma, and access to medications were among the most obvious commonalities.
“We need to know our epidemic in order to respond adequately.”
Svitlana told the forum that, much like in Vermont, stigma is a serious issue facing the HIV positive community of Ukraine. Regarding what leads to HIV related stigma Svitlana said, “Sometimes I feel HIV is not the problem. The problem is about drug use, poverty, even gender, really it’s about social injustice.” In an effort to combat stigma Svitlana explained that the communities impacted by HIV in Ukraine have had to work together. While the All-Ukrainian Network primarily targets the intravenous drug use community, they also serve a wide cross section of infected and affected populations. Another similarity is Ukraine’s approach to sexual education and HIV/STD prevention in schools. Svitlana, who has two children, explained that the amount of education on these topics is largely left to the teacher’s discretion and needs to be improved.
Naturally there were also areas in which Ukraine and Vermont are differed. For example, Svitlana and Oleksiy explained that corruption is a big problem that often leads to problems with equal access to care. Another difference is that in Ukraine condoms are made available to prison inmates. In contrast, the governor of California recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed inmates access to condoms. Currently Vermont is the only state in the US that provides condoms to prisoners, however they are only available upon request from prison staff.
The visit from Svitlana and Oleksiy was truly appreciated and an excellent reminder that the fight against HIV, and its related stigma, continues all around the world.
Thank you to Svitlana, Oleksiy, and Gus!