SEATTLE, Washington — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to demand attention from the world’s medical community, many other diseases do not receive as much focus. One such disease is HIV/AIDS, which continues to infect millions each year in areas of the world such as Africa, Eastern Europe and South America. To combat the discrepancies in medical care for those infected with HIV/AIDS or those who may have contracted the virus, UNAIDS is helping the homeless by providing medical aid for homeless communities in Eastern Europe.
HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe
Although HIV cases throughout the world continue to decrease with new ways to test and manage the condition, Eastern Europe continues to have significant problems in controlling the epidemic. For example, from 2010 to 2018, the annual rate of new HIV infections increased by 29%. In contrast, the CDC reported that the rates of HIV in the United States were beginning to stabilize over the past decade, with fewer people receiving a diagnosis each year. This same trend is found in most developed countries, where individuals with HIV or those suspected to have the virus, have access to tests and medications to diagnose or treat the virus.
One potential cause for the rapid rise of HIV/AIDS cases in Eastern Europe is the limited ability for some individuals to receive a diagnosis or treatment. For example, in Belarus, to receive free treatment for HIV, a person needs their HIV/AIDS diagnosis registered with the country’s Ministry of Health. However, homeless people are unable to receive the documentation necessary to prove that they have HIV/AIDS and need treatment. Of Belarusians who undergo testing, approximately 0.4 per 100,000 receive a positive diagnosis, equating to a current total of 27,000 Belarusians with HIV/AIDS. However, this figure does not represent those who are homeless and unable to undergo a free HIV test. Vera Ilyenkova, the UNAIDS Country Manager for Belarus, states that “Homeless people very often don’t have identification and this complicates a formal recognition of their HIV status and their access to HIV treatment.” This is a reason why UNAIDS is helping the homeless population, with a particular focus on HIV/AIDS.
HIV/AIDS and COVID-19
Although UNAIDS has always been committed to ending the AIDS crisis globally, the organization’s work has shifted since the pandemic began, to focus more on treating people with HIV/AIDS in COVID-19 hotspots. Since HIV/AIDS is an immunodeficiency virus, it would stop the immune system from being able to fight off COVID-19. This would result in patients with AIDS or untreated HIV being more likely to die if they also contract COVID-19. Due to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in vulnerable populations in Eastern Europe and many other parts of the world, UNAIDS has changed its programs to be more inclusive to homeless communities. Since those individuals would not be eligible for HIV testing or medication, contracting COVID-19 could easily prove fatal.
How UNAIDS is Helping the Homeless
To increase the resources available to vulnerable populations, UNAIDS and Belarusian NGOs, the Positive Movement and Street Medicine, have launched a new program to provide HIV services for Belarusians. This program will replace the services initially provided by homeless shelters in Minsk, of which eight out of 11 closed due to the COVID-29 pandemic. Due to the now limited resources available for Minsk’s homeless population, UNAIDS and the Positive Movement will help homeless people receive HIV tests and medications. The program, which currently consists of at least two phases, will offer services to 200 homeless individuals in Minsk. These services include distributing condoms and other contraceptives, giving out personal hygiene packs and providing HIV tests and counseling, should a person receive an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Even though these services traditionally cost money if a person’s diagnosis is not registered with the Ministry of Health, UNAIDS is making sure that all people can get a test even if they otherwise could not afford it. “We know that some of them are living with HIV, but because they don’t have proper identification and residence registration, they can’t get free treatment,” said Karina Radchenko, a volunteer for Street Medicine.
Once the first phase of the program is complete, UNAIDS hopes to extend this particular program to other cities in Belarus and eventually to other countries in Eastern Europe. While there are struggles with controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, UNAIDS is still confident in ending AIDS before 2030. However, to do so, previously unregistered people such as homeless individuals need to be accounted for.
– Sarah Licht