January 13, 2012
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Balkans region are uniting to combat the stubborn stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS there. They are starting by hosting a special conference in April that focuses on the needs of people living with HIV.
Official case counts in the region are low: For example, just 65 people in Bosnia are registered as HIV-positive, and 103 in Montenegro. However, experts believe the true number of cases could be at least 10 times higher. Montenegro, with just 660,000 inhabitants, saw a 33 percent rise in persons living with HIV from 2005 to 2009, data show. NGOs say HIV/AIDS prevalence among young people is increasing rapidly.
While most countries of the former Yugoslavia provide free antiretroviral treatment, people with HIV/AIDS report discrimination and isolation. "They are often excluded from a society, lose their job, they are deprived of their basic human rights and education," said Tatjana Preradovic-Sjenica, a psychologist with Viktorija, a Bosnian Serb NGO in Banja Luka.
In this region where traditional values are deeply rooted, people with HIV often are shunned by their own relatives. "We do not have any place to house people rejected by their families. They live in hospitals until they die," said Boris Kovacic of USOP, an umbrella group of Serbian HIV/AIDS organizations.
Discrimination and stigma prevent many people from getting tested for HIV, especially in Bosnia and Montenegro. "Fear of being identified or what the results of the test could be leads many people to conclude it's better not to know," said Preradovic-Sjenica. "We try to motivate people to take a test."
Tomislav Beganovic of Croatia's Association for HIV and Hepatitis Patients, noted "discrimination ... is born of ignorance, so we need to raise awareness."