HIV in Kyrgyzstan

Recently, I was told, “HIV is not a problem here.”

My Kyrgyz language skills are still pretty shaky, and for a moment I thought there had been a miscommunication. But the woman repeated, “HIV is not a problem here. There are only nine people in this rayon (county) with HIV. You shouldn’t teach lessons about HIV.”

I am about three months into my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic, a small mountainous country in the center of Asia. Two of those months were spent in training near the capital city of Bishkek.

In June, I moved to my permanent site — a town called Toktogul — located about five hours by taxi and two mountain passes south of Bishkek.

While Toktogul has hosted many Peace Corps volunteers over the years, I am the first volunteer in the health sector. As such, I am still figuring out exactly what my role here will be.

My main job is to assist my counterparts in delivering health lessons on various topics to members of community and surrounding villages. I will likely help out with a local nonprofit for disabled children. I will probably work in the schools and perhaps form after-school clubs for teenagers.

For now, my job is to continue learning the Kyrgyz language, to observe my counterparts at work, to build relationships, to get a sense of the greatest needs here and the ways that I can most contribute.

The woman who told me HIV wasn’t a problem works at the Health Promotion Unit – akin to a local health department where I am stationed.

I was stunned to hear a health professional say that HIV wasn’t a problem, but to a certain extent, I understood where she was coming from. Overall, the HIV rate in the Kyrgyz Republic is quite low —just 0.4 percent as of 2011, according to UNICEF. That’s lower than Russia’s and lower than the United States.

The problem, however, is that the HIV rate is rising. Kyrgyzstan is among the top seven countries in the world for rapidly increasing HIV rates.

Injection drug use, mostly in urban areas, is one of the main modes of transmission, but increasingly HIV is being spread through sexual contact and childbirth. In the Kyrgyz Republic, poverty is widespread and unemployment is high. As people migrate in search of jobs, HIV moves too.

While many factors contribute to the spread of HIV, among the most powerful is ignorance. If people don’t understand what HIV is and recognize it is a risk, they aren’t able to protect themselves against it.

If trends continue, the Kyrgyz Republic could have a widespread HIV epidemic on its hands.

But, with such a low HIV rate currently, the country is also in a position to avoid such an epidemic. It’s the right moment to act, to educate, so that in years to come health professionals can say, “HIV is not a problem here,” and be correct.

I have no idea what the next two years will bring, and I expect my role as a health educator to evolve in ways I can’t now foresee.

However, the comment that HIV is not a problem only serves to convince me that it must remain a priority for me throughout my service.

Source: Battle Creek  Enquirer

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