Living with HIV in Belarus

Participants at the billboard campaign "Living with HIV" in Belarus

“Enjoying a healthy and productive life while living with HIV” was the theme of an awareness-raising event held in Minsk on 21 August. There was a round table discussion addressing issues such as access to treatment and dealing with stigma and discrimination, followed by the unveiling of a billboard depicting a Belarusian living with HIV.

Billboard campaign

The billboard is the first of its kind and shows Eugene Spevak who has lived with HIV for 17 years thanks to antiretroviral treatment (ART). Prior to the unveiling a small performance was staged, in which a poster with a figure symbolizing death, the "old" symbol of HIV infection, was launched into the sky attached to balloons.

The central messages of the event were that ART substantially reduces the risk of transmitting HIV to others and prolongs life. It is believed that up to 40% of people living with HIV in Belarus do not know they have the virus. An important message of the billboard campaign is that people should get tested so that they will have access to effective treatment.

Opening the event, Egor Zaitsev, Head of the WHO Country office said: “Though there is no cure for HIV-infection, effective treatment with ART can control the virus so that people with HIV can enjoy healthy and productive lives. Following the new WHO HIV recommendations to provide earlier, safer and simpler ART for all who need it could push the HIV epidemic into an irreversible decline.”

AIDS-free generation

Sanaka Samarasinha, UNDP Resident Representative in the Republic of Belarus said scaling up access to ART was critical to achieving an AIDS-free generation. “Stigma, discrimination and legal issues should never under any circumstances be barriers to accessing effective care. And it is crucial to avoid negative beliefs, feelings and attitudes towards people living with HIV,” he said.

These sentiments were echoed by Igor Gajevsky, Deputy Minister of Health and Chief Sanitarian of the Republic of Belarus, who expressed his support for the billboard campaign. “It’s good for people to see a real live person who has HIV, has received treatment and can live for a long time,” he said.

At the round table discussion, Vera Ilyenkova, WHO Country programme coordinator on HIV/AIDS, presented new WHO HIV treatment recommendations for the use of antiretroviral drugs for treating and preventing HIV infection. She said: “New guidelines recommend starting ART earlier to help people with HIV to live longer, healthier lives, and substantially reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. The new recommendations encourage all countries to initiate treatment in adults living with HIV when their CD4 cell count falls to 500 cells/mm³ or less. WHO will provide technical support to Belarus in adopting new WHO recommendations at the country level.”

Dr Dmitry Paduto, Deputy Head of Infectious Diseases Hospital in Minsk confirmed the country’s commitment to moving forward with HIV/AIDS treatment and said that the Ministry of Health is ready to start discussion on revising national clinical recommendations. Eleanora Gvozdeva, UNAIDS Country officer presented a new UNAIDS initiative built on WHO guidelines “Treatment 2015”.

Also participating in the round table discussion were:

  • Elena Fisenko, Head of the National AIDS prevention Department,
  • Sergey Kruchinin, chief of the Expert council of the National informational HIV/AIDS strategy,
  • Vladimir Zhovtyak, president of “East Europe and central Asia Union of PLHIV”,
  • Eugene Spevak, member of the Belarusian association of people living with HIV,
  • Olga Atroshchanka, UNDP Programme officer,
  • members of the expert council of the national informational HIV/AIDS strategy mass media.

A total of 20 billboards will be placed the Belarusian towns most affected by HIV.