Czech AIDS statistics -are they too good to be true?

While the spread of AIDS is becoming increasingly difficult to contain in some parts of the world, statistics suggest that the Czech Republic is a fairly sheltered country in this respect. To date 807 people are registered HIV positive, 76 are AIDS sufferers and 118 people have succumbed to the disease. But do these statistics reflect the real picture or merely the tip of the iceberg?

Although the official figures suggest that the Czech Republic has little cause for concern AIDS experts are cautious in their estimates. Few young people use condms, testing is not widespread and the number of HIV infected people could actually be much higher. Mirek Hlavaty who heads the Lighthouse shelter for AIDS patients says that many Czechs no longer feel threatened:

"The AIDS information boom hit us in the 90s. We saw Freddy Mercury die of AIDS and everyone was talking about it. But today young people seem to have pushed it to the back of their minds, because you don't hear a great deal said about it in this country. Visit the Scandinavian states and you'll see hundreds of billboards relating to AIDS. Here there's no such thing, mainly because finances are in short supply. Consequently, many young Czechs don't consider AIDS to be a problem that concerns them."

In addition to the health risk this information void presents, it has another important side effect - a widespread lack of tolerance and sympathy for people who are HIV positive. The Family Planning Association regularly visits schools for informal debates about the threat of AIDS and safe sex. Peer-activities are said to be the most effective in this respect and students are encouraged to take the initiative in spreading the word. Here is an amateur recording made by secondary school students who polled elderly people in the street about how the HIV virus is transmitted:

"You can get it by having sex or even in public toilets."

"I think you can get it by kissing. There's lots of ways to get it and it's nothing pleasant. Very contagious. They say plenty of people have it. And there are money collections to help those who do. I suppose one shouldn't feel sorry for them really but one does, because some of them may have got it quite by chance. It's a very serious problem."

"You get it by doing what we elderly people don't do anymore. I know young people need to, but they should not go with just anyone."

"It is most frequently transmitted through sex but you can also get it through physical contact - those are the main dangers."

It would be misleading to suggest that this appalling lack of information is widespread among young people. Most young and middle aged respondents gave - more or less - the correct answer. But the opinion poll indicates what is at the root of the lack of tolerance to HIV and AIDS suffers. Mirek Hlavaty says that this intolerance prevents many HIV infected people from helping to spread the word.

"It would help if more people were willing to come forward and tell their story. But try going on camera and saying you are gay and HIV positive. The minute you do your life is over - in this country that's how it is."

Mirek Hlavaty says he fears that the time is not far off when each one of us will personally know someone who has AIDS:

"At first we feared what the west might bring. Now we fear what could hit us from the east. The statistics from Russia and Ukraine speak of hundreds of thousands of HIV infected people. And we are caught in the middle. There's no question about it. An HIV boom will happen sooner or later."

Since the level of tolerance is low, shelters such as the Lighthouse are extremely important, as is HIV testing for free. Unfortunately money is short. Sex therapist Radim Uzel from the Family Planning Association says the stigma attached to AIDS makes sponsors very hard to find:

"In the Czech Republic we have a big problem finding financial resources for our activities. In West European countries it is perfectly normal to support non-governmental organizations. In the Czech Republic it seems firms only want to sponsor sports clubs, football and hockey teams and such. When we ask firms or well-off people to support our projects they refuse - because it is perceived as something bad, marginal and not for normal people."