HIV-epidemic: Something from the past? Not in Romania!

 

Entrance-ACCEPT

BUCHAREST – Searching for the entrance to the building, I discover a half vowed rainbow flag dangling in the front garden. It is the entrance to the headquarters of Romania’s main LGBTI-organisation: ACCEPT. The frayed flag couldn’t embody the political situation for the LGBTI-community in this post-communist country more.

Florin Buhuceanu welcomes me very warmly in his office. Without any exaggeration, Florin is the founding father of the LGBTI-movement in Romania. He organised the first ever public LGBTI-event in 2004, GayFest. He’s been the face of the movement since then.

Originally, I wanted to visit Romania to learn more about the opportunities the failure of the conservative referendum on the banning of same-sex marriage brought for the LGBTI-comminity. But during a Skype meeting in preparation of my visit, Florin already asked me to focus on a more urgent crisis.

Florin Buhuceanu 1
Florin Buhuceanu (© 2018 Rémy Bonny)

Lot’s of people might think HIV-epidemics are something from the eighties and nineties. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Romania.

 

For three months already, hospitals are running out of stock of HIV-treatment in the country. The ‘men who have sex with with men’-community (MSM) seems to be the most affected by this crisis. It is the only group in Romania which year after year sees a rise in infections.

Structural discrimination and mismanagement seem to be the causes for this HIV-epidemic.

Double stigma

In the National Library of Romania, I met with Mihai Lixandru. Mihai is responsible for Queens Checkpoint – the only HIV-testing service for MSM in the country.

The highest discriminated categories are people living with HIV and gay men. Gays living with HIV are being double stigmatised”, Mihai explains.

Mihai Lixandru
Mihai Lixandru (© 2018 Rémy Bonny)

His project started in the summer of 2017. “In the beginning people were afraid to come. But then we moved our services to Queens [Bucharest’s only gay club] and people felt more safe coming there.

 

The project will easily surpass its 600-tests goal for this year, Mihai says. “The demand for our services is big, but we can’t be everywhere”.

Therefore, he set up another project – Checkpoint Caravan. From time to time, they go to other cities in Romania to test the MSM-community there. In the summer period, they also offer free testing services at a nudist beach which is mainly populated by the MSM-community.

Underestimated

In Bucharest, 7% of the people being tested by Queens Checkpoint are HIV-positive. “But the number is higher outside the capital”. With the Checkpoint Caravan project no less than one in ten is HIV-positive.

HIV-activist Alina Dimitriu thinks the reality is even worse. “We are not able to cover the whole MSM-community, so a lot of them need to go to hospitals. There, they declare themselves as heterosexuals, because they are afraid of being discriminated.

Declaring you are heterosexual when doing STD-testing might involve some health risks. Doctors won’t test on anal gonorrhoea, for instance.

Sexual education

On my way to my last interview of the day, my Uber driver asks me what I’m doing in Romania. With some restraint I explain him that I’m investigating the HIV/AIDS-situation in his country. Immediately he linked HIV/AIDS with the gay community. I tried to explain him that HIV/AIDS is not just ‘a gay thing’ and that everybody can get infected by the virus. I couldn’t change several years of bad education in just five minutes.

But indeed, all my interviewees give the lack of good and structural sexual education as one of the main reasons why HIV is still so present in the Romanian society.

Iulian Petre 1.JPG
Iulian Petre (© 2018 Rémy Bonny)

Iulian Petre is the Director of the National Organisation for People Affected by HIV/AIDS (UNOPA). We meet at his office. He tells me that he just came back from the Minister of Health to discuss a new HIV Strategy Plan (see below).

When Romania became member of the European Union, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS stopped financing local NGOs. “Now, we are considered as a middle-income country, so they assume that we can provide the financial needs ourselves for prevention and education.”, according to Iulian.

From young girls getting pregnant at the age of 13 to teenagers being infected with HIV. This is the reality in Romania”, according to Alina.

For Florin the narrow-mindedness of Romanian politicians in dealing with HIV/AIDS is one of the main reasons. “Already too long, the only ministry dealing with the issue is the Ministry of Health. For instance, the Ministry of Education and Youth should also be included.

Gay culture? 

Another – rather exceptional – explanation for the epidemic within the MSM-community is given by the UNOPA director. His organisation tries to maintain a good relationship with the government.

The epidemic is due to an increase in the quality of life and life expectancy due to the treatment.

He continues: “I think there was a change in behaviour in the LGBTI-community. They don’t see the infection as a dreadful thing anymore. It is just a chronicle disease which can be dealt with, in their opinions.”.

A bad record

Between 1988 and 1992, there was a huge epidemiological accident concerning HIV/AIDS in Romania. As much as 14.000 children were infected by the virus due to unsanitary conditions in the hospitals. About 7.000 of these children are still alive and are in their thirties now.

LGBTI-activist Florin states: “This makes the stock-out situation even more outrageous. The same state that infected those kids is now putting them and their health in danger again by preventing them from access to the treatment.”.

According to HIV-activist Alina, 11 hospitals experience a stock-out at the moment. But this stock-out is not structural, declares UNOPA-director Iulian. “Most hospitals are able to provide the treatment again after two weeks. But indeed, the problem is already going on for two or three months.

It is not the first time Romania experiences problems with a stock-out of HIV-treatment.

Since 2007, basically every year there are minor stock-outs. This year is the biggest one.”, LGBTI-activist Florin explains.

New Strategic Plan?

The last National Strategic Plan dealing with HIV/AIDS expired already in 2007. All interviewees stressed on the urgent need for a new plan. “A lot of problems could have been prevented if there was at least a plan on how to deal with the issue.”, HIV-activist Alina states.

After several meetings between the Ministry of Health and all major NGOs dealing with HIV/AIDS, a new National Stategy for HIV/AIDS was put up for public debate last week.

The plan is originally made by the NGOs. It includes a detailed and realistic budget, so it can easily convince the policy makers. It also explicitly widens the responsibility to other ministries like those on education and youth.”, tells LGBTI-activist Florin. “In the end, the prime minister should be responsible in dealing with such an epidemic.

 “The minister assured me that the Plan will get accepted. I don’t want to have my hopes too high, but I’m positive.”, concludes UNOPA-director Iulian.

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