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Romania is having an urgent HIV crisis and it could easily affect the world

Romania is having an urgent HIV crisis and it could easily affect the world

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HIV-epidemic: Something from the past? Not in Romania! Men who have sex with men are at high risk of getting infected in the post-communist country.

Searching for the entrance to the building, I discover a crumpled rainbow flag dangling in the front garden. It is the entrance to the headquarters of Romania’s main LGBTI- organization: ACCEPT. The frayed flag couldn’t embody the political situation for the LGBTI community in this post-communist country more.

Photo: Rémy Bonny

Florin Buhuceanu welcomes me very warmly in his office. Without any exaggeration, Florin is the founding father of the LGBTI movement in Romania.

He organized the first ever public LGBTI event in 2004, GayFest. He’s been the face of the movement since then.

Originally, I wanted to visit Romania to learn more about the opportunities the failure of the conservative referendum on the banning of same-sex marriage brought for the LGBTI-community. But during a Skype meeting in preparation of my visit, Florin already asked me to focus on a more urgent crisis.

Lot’s of people might think HIV epidemics are something from the 80s and 90s. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Romania.

For three months already, hospitals are running out of stock of HIV treatment in the country. The ‘men who have sex with men’-community (MSM) seems to be the most affected by this crisis. It is the only group in Romania which year after year sees a rise in infections.

Structural discrimination and mismanagement seem to be the causes of this HIV-epidemic.

Double stigma

In the National Library of Romania, I met with Mihai Lixandru. Mihai is responsible for Queens Checkpoint – the only HIV-testing service for MSM in the country.

‘The highest discriminated categories are people living with HIV and gay men. Gays living with HIV are being double stigmatized’, Mihai explains.

His project started in the summer of 2017. ‘In the beginning, people were afraid to come. But then we moved our services to Queens [Bucharest’s only gay club] and people felt safer coming there.’

The project will easily surpass its 600 tests goal for this year, Mihai says. ‘The demand for our services is big, but we can’t be everywhere.’

Therefore, he set up another project – Checkpoint Caravan. From time to time, they go to other cities in Romania to test the MSM-community there. In the summer period, they also offer free testing services at a nudist beach which is mainly populated by the MSM-community.

Underestimated

Florin Buhuceanu is the founder of the LGBTI rights movement in Romania | Photo: Rémy Bonny
Florin Buhuceanu is the founder of the LGBTI rights movement in Romania | Photo: Rémy Bonny 

In Bucharest, 7% of the people being tested by Queens Checkpoint are HIV positive. ‘But the number is higher outside the capital’. With the Checkpoint Caravan project, no less than one in 10 is HIV-positive.

HIV activist Alina Dimitriu thinks the reality is even worse.

They said: ‘We are not able to cover the whole MSM-community, so a lot of them need to go to hospitals. There, they declare themselves as heterosexuals, because they are afraid of being discriminated.’

Declaring you are heterosexual when doing STD-testing might involve some health risks. Doctors won’t test on anal gonorrhea, for instance.

Sexual education

On my way to my last interview of the day, my Uber driver asks me what I’m doing in Romania. With some restraint, I explained to him that I’m investigating the HIV and AIDS situation in his country. Immediately he linked HIV and AIDS with the gay community. I tried to explain to him that HIV and AIDS is not just ‘a gay thing’ and that everybody can get infected by the virus. I couldn’t change several years of bad education in just five minutes.

But indeed, all my interviewees give the lack of good and structural sexual education as one of the main reasons why HIV is still so present in the Romanian society.

Iulian Petre is the Director of the National Organisation for People Affected by HIV and AIDS (UNOPA). We meet at his office. He tells me that he just came back from the Minister of Health to discuss a new HIV Strategy Plan.

When Romania became a member of the European Union, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS stopped financing local NGOs.

‘Now, we are considered as a middle-income country, so they assume that we can provide the financial needs ourselves for prevention and education,’ according to Iulian.

‘From young girls getting pregnant at the age of 13 to teenagers being infected with HIV. This is the reality in Romania’, according to Alina.

For Florin, the narrow-mindedness of Romanian politicians in dealing with HIV and AIDS is one of the main reasons.

‘Already too long, the only ministry dealing with the issue is the Ministry of Health. For instance, the Ministry of Education and Youth should also be included.’

Gay culture?

Another – rather exceptional – explanation for the epidemic within the MSM community is given by the UNOPA director. His organization tries to maintain a good relationship with the government.

‘The epidemic is due to an increase in the quality of life and life expectancy due to the treatment.’

He continues: ‘I think there was a change in behavior in the LGBTI community. They don’t see the infection as a dreadful thing anymore. It is just a chronic disease which can be dealt with, in their opinion’.

A bad record

Rémy Bonny is an HIV and LGBTI rights activist | Photo: Rémy Bonny

Between 1988 and 1992, there was a huge epidemiological accident concerning HIV and AIDS in Romania. As much as 14,000 children were infected by the virus due to unsanitary conditions in the hospitals. About 7,000 of these children are still alive and are in their 30s now.

Florin states: ‘This makes the stock-out situation even more outrageous. The same state that infected those kids is now putting them and their health in danger again by preventing them from access to the treatment.’

According to Alina, 11 hospitals experience a stock-out at the moment. But this stock- out is not structural, declares Iulian.

‘Most hospitals are able to provide the treatment again after two weeks. But indeed, the problem is already going on for two or three months.’

It is not the first time Romania experiences problems with a stock-out of HIV treatment.

‘Since 2007, basically every year there are minor stock-outs. This year is the biggest one,’  Florin said.

New Strategic Plan?

The last National Strategic Plan dealing with HIV and AIDS expired already in 2007. All interviewees stressed the urgent need for a new plan.

‘A lot of problems could have been prevented if there was at least a plan on how to deal with the issue,’ Alina said.

After several meetings between the Ministry of Health and all major NGOs dealing with HIV and AIDS, a new National Strategy for HIV and AIDS was put up for public debate last week.

‘The plan is originally made by the NGOs. It includes a detailed and realistic budget, so it can easily convince the policymakers. It also explicitly widens the responsibility to other ministries like those on education and youth,’ said Florin.

‘In the end, the prime minister should be responsible in dealing with such an epidemic.’

‘The minister assured me that the plan will get accepted. I don’t want to have my hopes too high, but I’m positive,’ said Iulian.

Rémy Bonny is an LGBTI activist and academic in Eastern Europe. Find out more on his website

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