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Young people living with HIV push for change in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine — Dany Stolbunov, now 20, admired and trusted his doctor in Ukraine enough to confide in him that he wanted to go to medical school. He hoped for affirmation of his dreams. Instead, he met rejection. “You can’t be a doctor,” his doctor said. “You have HIV.”

Born with HIV, Stolbunov learned he had the virus at age 8, when his father died of AIDS. As he grew up, he saw first-hand the stigma that still persists around HIV and AIDS even among people in health-care systems who are supposed to be on the front lines of treatment. As a young adult, he became determined to advocate for less discriminatory care.

“We are the first generation born with HIV who are growing up and can openly speak about it,” he told people attending the 2018 International AIDS Conference, the largest global gathering on a health-care concern.

The Eastern Europe and Central Asia region has the world’s fastest-growing HIV epidemic, with the largest number of new infections and AIDS-related deaths in Russia, followed by Ukraine. Though the rate of new infections has started to slow slightly in Ukraine since 2010, the number of new cases is still growing, concentrated among people who inject drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and the sexual partners of members of these groups. Of the 244,000 people living with HIV in Ukraine as of the beginning of 2018, nearly half were not aware of their status, and only 40 per cent were receiving antiretroviral therapy.

Figures like these point to the gaps still remaining in meeting the sexual and reproductive health needs of all people in Ukraine, and around the world. Significant progress has been made in the 50 years since UNFPA was founded, and in the 25 years since world governments agreed to the Programme of Action adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. But not everyone has equal access to the same rights and opportunities, as UNFPA’s new State of World Population 2019 reveals.

Ending stigma in the medical profession 

UNFPA is working to reduce stigma among medical specialists in Ukraine towards key populations and people living with HIV, and to improve the quality of HIV counselling available in the country. To this end, it has supported the creation of an online course that aims to equip family doctors with the key principles on HIV prevention, counselling, testing and non-discrimination. Doctors who pass the course will be able to register with an online platform that allows patients to find and make an appointment with one of these “friendly doctors” in their vicinity.

“We believe that online tools like these will help attract more young key populations by allowing them to access medical facilities they can trust where they will be linked to HIV care at a early stage and able to start antiretroviral therapy in a timely manner,” says Yuliia Novak, Youth Program Officer with the UNPFA Country Office in Ukraine.

UNFPA also supports youth-led initiatives that are amplifying the voices of young people like Stolbunov. As a leader of the Ukrainian organization Teenergizer!, Stolbunov performed at the 2018 International AIDS Conference in a documentary theatre production, “Don’t Tell Anyone.” It showcases what it means to live with HIV in Eastern Europe and calls for listening to the voices of young people living with HIV.

Created by adolescents for adolescents, Teenergizer! advocates for every teenager to realize their full potential and rights, and for ending all forms of discrimination, including those against people living with HIV. Young people are still not seen as a priority in accessing even basic information about HIV, even though globally, HIV is a leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 19.

Stolbunov also co-chairs The Pact, a coalition of more than 80 youth-led organizations and networks committing to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, and ending AIDS by 2030. He proclaims: “Nothing for us, without us. We are ready to fight for our rights.”