The Czech Republic released its latest figures to coincide with world HIV/AIDS day on Tuesday. In spite of the steady climb in new cases, the country still stands out as a low infection zone compared with Western Europe and some states of the former Soviet Union such as Ukraine. But there is a real fear that complacency and indifference over infection twinned with greater exposure to risk are storing up a potential explosion.
In the first 10 months of this year 128 new cases of HIV and AIDS were recorded in the Czech Republic among Czechs and long-term foreign residents. This brings the HIV infected total so far to 1,315 of whom 284 have gone on to develop full-blown AIDS. The number of people who have died with HIV/AIDS stands at 152.
In terms of the raw number of new HIV/AIDS cases, 2009 looks like being in the same ballpark as 2008. That was the worst year on record for the growth of new cases with a more than 22 percent rise on the previous year.
The Czech figures are tiny compared with the estimated more than 33 million people currently infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide. But the country’s health experts fear Czechs and especially the country’s biggest single risk group ― homosexual men ― are casting caution aside and engaging again in risky sexual behaviour.
Marek Malý is head of the statistics section at the National Institute of Public Health.
“We see during the last six years an increase in new cases in the Czech Republic and this is mainly driven by the increase in numbers among homosexuals. The reasons for this is probably sexual contacts and also risk behaviour.”
In fact, the latest figures show that homosexual men accounted for around two-thirds of newly detected HIV/AIDS infections this year. Mr Malý says he knows of cases where gay men know the risks of unsafe sex and have been tested for infection a dozen times before but come up positive the next time because they are still do not taking precautions such as wearing condoms. He adds that young Czechs, straight and gay, now seem to think HIV/AIDS is little worse than a common cold and can be cured.
As well as spreading complacency at home, there is also a fear that Czechs are being exposed to higher risk of infection through tourism abroad and an explosion of HIV-AIDS in not so distant neighbours such as Ukraine. Ukrainians are one of the biggest groups of legal and illegal immigrants in the Czech Republic. Mr. Malý again:
“We have many cases amongst Ukrainians who live here. Since in Ukraine the prevalent form of HIV/AIDS infection is through injections for drug use, there is a risk that such an infection will be introduced in our country too. And we see many contacts of our inhabitants with other countries, especially touristic to Thailand and Western Europe where infection among homosexuals is dominant. So the risk of increasing infection in the Czech Republic is relatively high.”
Thanks to clean needle programmes in the Czech Republic, drug injection has so far been a relatively minor vector of infection accounting for only around 5.0 percent of cases.
But the basic message from Prague on HIV/AIDS day is that the only thing to fear is a lack of fear as absence of widespread infection so far is no guarantee for the future.
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