Prague memorial sheds light on threat of AIDS

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Fears of bird flu and SARS have dominated headlines of late, driving the deadly HIV virus into the background of world attention. However, statistics show that AIDS isn't going away. Indeed, to date the disease has claimed the lives of more than 28 million people - nearly three times the total population of the Czech Republic. This Sunday the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial will pay homage to those who have died around the globe, including a ceremony here in Prague on Wenceslas Square.

Dr. Marie Bruckova
So far, the Czech Republic and its neighbors have been lucky. UNAIDS and World Health Organization statistics indicate Central and Western Europe has one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in the world. In the Czech Republic the total number of deaths from AIDS is in the hundreds, and it's estimated that about one-tenth of one percent of Czechs are living with HIV. But that might change. Dr. Marie Bruckova, who heads the National Reference Laboratory on AIDS, says that infections are rising steadily by between 50 and 100 cases per year. She adds that this probably isn't the whole picture.

"We have certain worries. We have an increase of those who are HIV-infected who are registered. You know, we can suppose there are more people infected or whom we don't register. So those who we do register are going up. We may suppose that there are more people, and usually we say five times more than we register. I wouldn't say more than five times."

One factor worrying officials is that nearby Ukraine, which has many of its citizens living and working in the Czech Republic, is the worst-affected country in Europe. There, about 1.4 percent of adults are infected with HIV. UNAIDS also says that in the Russian Federation, AIDS was initially prevalent mostly in intravenous drug users. Now it is spreading to sex workers and their clients. Czech Deputy Health Minister Michael Vit says that an uneven policy on testing between the Czech Republic and former Soviet states isn't helping the matter.

"Yes, I think that we have a little problem with migration from the former states of the Soviet Union. If I want to go to the Soviet Union, I have to be tested. When colleagues from the Soviet Union fly in to the Czech Republic, they don't have to be tested. It's a problem."

The high cost of drugs is also a problem. The Czech Republic spends roughly half of its annual AIDS program budget on anti-retroviral drugs.

"We need the new anti-retroviral drugs. They are not registered in Czech Republic, and this type of drug cannot be paid by health insurance companies. This part is paid from the budget of the Health Ministry. For us, it's a little expensive. But now, we are discussing with health insurance companies about having all drugs covered."

Michael Vit doesn't expect the talks to produce results this year but is hopeful for more progress beginning in 2007. Meanwhile, Dr. Marie Bruckova and other officials are worried that a new generation of kids who are still healthy are growing up unaware of the threat of AIDS - which remains very, very real. UNAIDS attributes 3.1 million fatalities last year to the disease. Despite these deaths, the disease is less visible than it's been in the past, Dr. Bruckova says, and that's causing the rate of infection to rise.

"The reason of this increase, I think is because the young people, the young generation, they don't fear AIDS disease like the previous generation did. The previous generation saw those who were dying from AIDS. For instance, in New York everybody knew Rock Hudson. They saw the impact of this disease. Nowadays, this generation, they don't see it."

Radio Prague asked students at Charles University whether they were concerned about the risk of HIV/AIDS. All were of course aware of the disease, but most said they weren't worried about getting the infection themselves. Here's what one student, Stepan, had to say when asked whether he feared contracting HIV:

"Well, uh, not personally. I know about it, but...well, it's not my problem."

Has your behavior changed because of the disease?

"Well, uh...no. Not at all."

Over at Prague's Lighthouse, which helps people afflicted with HIV, a resident offers a word of caution. Martin's brother died of AIDS, and he himself is HIV positive. He says that people should know the risk is real and to do everything in their power to be safe.

"I don't think having AIDS in the Czech Republic is any different than Germany, or Belgium, or anywhere else. Since I found out I was HIV positive, I've stopped using drugs and also started talking to my family again. People need to be careful. They should realize that the infection is here. If they are drug users, they should use their own needles and their own equipment. If they have a long-term partner, they should be careful and, if they don't, they should always use condoms."