`When I found out about my HIV status, I suffered from the deepest depression for two years. I couldn’t raise my eyes. I don’t remember anything from that period. Two years had fallen out of my life,” says 36-year-old Natalia Kovnir, who was working as an artist and waitress when, ten years ago, she discovered that she was HIV positive. Her husband, an intravenous drug-user like herself, was brought to the hospital for in-patient treatment and learned that he was infected with HIV after a blood test. It turned out that Natalia was infected, too. Unsurprisingly, the shock proved a breaking point in the relationship with her husband, and the couple divorced. Getting off drugs was the next step, but it wasn’t easy. Battling depression and loneliness, she kept turning to substances even more than before, although she also made
“My HIV status totally changed my view on life. To put it bluntly, I live every day as if it’s the last day of my life,” Natalia says
two unsuccessful attempts to stop. “When I was young, I loved being in a state of intoxication,” she said. “I drank a lot. But then I realised that alcohol no longer gave me what I wanted. I needed something stronger.” It wasn’t difficult to find what she wanted, since her younger brother was already a hard drug user. And so Natalia gave it a go. The siblings’ needle-tracked arms made it clear to their parents that they were drug users, but their father didn’t care and their mother didn’t know how to help. Some time later, having spent two and a half years behind bars on drug-related charges, her brother took Natalia to an anonymous support group for substance abusers. “That was a moment of soul-searching,” she says. “I understood that I wanted to live.” Natalia has been clean now for almost seven years. She currently works for the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS as a regional development specialist. “My HIV status totally changed my view on life. To put it bluntly, I live every day as if it’s the last day of my life. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow hasn’t come yet. Only today exists for me. I try my hardest to give all the best I have to the people who surround me. I care a lot about the people living in the regions with HIV/AIDS, and I want to help them. Now I have a much better understanding of what love and consideration for other people are,” Natalia says.
The story of Bohdan Zaika, 31, who works for the same company as Natalia, is a bit different. Like Natalia might have, he contracted the disease via injection. After a drug overdose put him in the hospital, a blood test indicated he was HIV-positive. Instead of taking measures to help the 21-year-old man, the hospital, fearing his disease, kicked him out into the street. His parents, meanwhile, had already given up on him. “I couldn’t believe I was infected. I didn’t want to believe it.” He kept using drugs for a long time, until he started facing serious health problems. At one point Bohdan broke his spine, and contracted cancer. “I can’t say
As you get farther away from the centres of Ukraine’s major cities, where people are knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS and enlightened views prevail, social attitudes make fighting the epidemic difficult
it was my own decision to give up drugs,” he says. “I gave them up because I physically couldn’t use them any more. I couldn’t walk. When I was finally able to walk, I didn’t see any point in using them again.” It’s now been five years since Bohdan went clean. His relationship with his parents has improved and he and they trust and support each other now. Many people with HIV don’t even known they’re infected until their immune systems are so compromised that another disease develops and sends them to a doctor. That leads to dangerous situations, because they aren’t aware that they’re contaminating other people. The fact is, however, that HIV-positive people can have boyfriends, girlfriends, and families without getting anyone else sick, since the spread of the disease can be prevented day to day by the usual precautions: condoms, for example. “The reaction to my saying I’m HIVpositive is almost always a sort of shock for people,” Bohdan says. “That’s because many people don’t understand what HIV is and what to do about it. Some people run away, and some come back.” Natalia and Bohdan live normal lives, apart from taking special medications twice a day, undergoing therapy, and having their blood tested regularly once every three months. Bohdan continues, “Nowadays HIV isn’t a death sentence. Over the course of the last 10 years, the situation has changed here. Ukraine is providing high-quality treatment that’s available to everyone who needs it free of charge. HIV-positive people can live longer than the common person if they take care of themselves properly.”
He’s right, of course, but the fact is that in Ukraine quality of treatment isn’t quite available to everybody yet. In the provinces, for example, resources for fighting the epidemic aren’t as common as they are in Kyiv, with its high-tech medical equipment and such justly praised facilities as the Lavra AIDS Clinic, on the grounds of the Pechersk Lavra. Also, as you get farther away from the centres of Ukraine’s major cities, where people are knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS and enlightened views prevail, social attitudes make fighting the epidemic more difficult. Drug addicts are still considered nothing other than criminals, rather than as sick people who are necessarily using illegal substances. HIV/AIDS also tends to be considered a “homosexual” matter in much of provincial Ukraine (as in the provincial regions of most countries), and therefore attracts little sympathy. Drug users have been known to be harassed by the police at methadone- and needle- distribution points, and although the situation is changing now, the government has been slow to respond. That’s a holdover from the Soviet era, when the government was loath even to acknowledge that a disease associated with “degenerate” Western lifestyles existed in the USSR. It’s a terrible irony that those depressed industrial regions of Ukrainian where needle use, and thus HIV transmission, are problems are some of the places least culturally and ideologically equipped to confront the epidemic.
Meanwhile, over 1,723 new AIDS cases and over 2,116 AIDS related deaths were officially reported in Ukraine in 2006, and more than 377,600 officially registered HIV patients live here. Just as they are elsewhere, women are more vulnerable than young men to HIV and AIDS, with most new HIV infections occurring in young women between 15 and 24. By 2014, AIDS is expected to reduce the average female life expectancy in Ukraine by 3 to 5 years and account for over 65 percent of all deaths of females between 15 and 49. The figures for males for that same projected period are on average half that of females, which offers only the slightest consolation as Ukraine deals with an epidemic that rages on.