Being HIV positive in Georgia
In 2020, 496 new cases of HIV infection were recorded in Georgia. This means that in general 5,379 people officially (including 600 in Abkhazia) have HIV-positive status.
The first case of HIV/AIDS contracted in Georgia was recorded in 1989. Since then much has changed. New methods of treatment and medications have emerged through which HIV has become a chronic, manageable disease instead of a death sentence. When it comes to perceptions in the Georgian society, however, little has changed for HIV-positive people. Stigma and discrimination remain an insurmountable problem.
Many people still don’t know how the infection is transmitted, and avoid contact with infected people.
JAMnews spoke with a few people who have been living with HIV for years, as well as those who communicate directly with infected people.
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Tamuna, who now helps other infected people, contracted HIV nine years ago in prison. To this day, she doesn’t know how she was infected. She thinks it happened either during an operation she had to remove her cecum, or from a dentist. Since then, her life has changed.
“After that, when I openly said that I was HIV-positive, only a few prisoners out of 1,800 in the female colony would communicate with me. I saw how close friends distanced themselves from me, how I became a stranger to them. I felt unwanted because I saw that people avoided communicating with me,” Tamuna said.
She said that even her relatives barely accepted her diagnosis: “You know, in Georgia there’s a stereotype that a person with AIDS is a drug addict or sex worker.”
She said she faced discrimination not only from prisoners but also from doctors. After getting out of the prison, she wasn’t able to find a job. She said that because she didn’t hide anything about her health doctors refused to see her.
An art therapy course has been helping Tamuna in overcoming her challenges. “I embroider, draw, and make decorative pillows, and it helps me a lot. I’m being treated, I take medicine, and I know that I must take it for the rest of my life. If the virus isn’t active in my blood, I live just like everyone else. I’m just constantly monitoring my health and frequently doing tests.
“I don’t hide my status. I want to be an example to all, and tell women who are HIV-positive that they can give birth to healthy children and shouldn’t give up that joy. I have three children, two of them who I had after I contracted HIV, all are healthy. I am HIV-positive, but I’m not a danger to society,” says Tamuna.
“I learned that I was infected at the end of 2015. Before that I had been sick for several months, and the day before the New Year I learned the results of my HIV test. It’s hard to describe what happened to me. I was really frightened, even cried.
I went through hell. It took me two months to come to terms with the diagnosis. There was no one nearby that could give me advice or share information. In the end, I found a Russian-speaking group of HIV-positive people on the internet. They shared their experiences, gave advice, and calmed me down.
I’m being treated now and have to take medicine for the rest of my life. I’ve had to change my way of life of course. I was a good toastmaster and loved to drink. Now I don’t drink. As far as the rest goes, I live like any other person and don’t limit myself in anything. I don’t hide that I’m HIV-positive. The only person who doesn’t know is my mom. She is ill, so I don’t want her to worry.
Now I warn everyone to take care of their health. I contracted HIV as a result of unsafe sex, and I want others to take this mistake into account. To anyone who has just learned that they are HIV-positive and cannot get over the shock, I want to tell them to not be afraid, HIV is not a death sentence!”
“I discovered I had HIV 7 years ago. I don’t know how I got infected; apart from having unsafe sex I also went to the dentist. I was discriminated against even by family members: they began to avoid physical contact with me, and gave me a separate cup and plate.
For a long time I couldn’t convince them that HIV wasn’t transmitted through hugs and kisses. I had a girlfriend and I felt it was necessary to tell her about my diagnosis. After that she broke up with me. I’m being treated and feel well, but I don’t talk openly about my diagnosis. I probably won’t talk about it while the level of social consciousness is so low.”
Infectious Disease Specialist Maya Butzashvili
Maya is one of the first doctors to treat HIV-positive people in Georgia. She says that infected people still suffer discrimination.
“I remember that in 1996, an HIV-positive person died and no one came to his funeral service. In one case, a patient had their home burnt down. Doctors refuse to treat them.
In Tbilisi, there was only one gynecologist who received HIV-positive women 15 years ago. I can’t say that the stigma towards HIV-positive people has lessened much. Despite the fact that they are not particularly persecuted or oppressed, society nevertheless is intolerant towards HIV-positive people.”
By the summer of 2020, 8,598 cases of HIV infection were officially registered in Georgia. Of these, 6,422 are men, 2,176 are women.
Most patients are between 29 and 40 years old.
Georgia is on the list of countries with a low prevalence of HIV / AIDS.
However, most likely the real number of infected people is twice as much, which would already become a solid indicator for such a small country like Georgia.
According to the Georgian AIDS Center, 40.1 percent of those infected are injecting drug users, 46.2 percent were infected as a result of heterosexual contact, and about 11 percent as a result of homo- and bisexual contacts.
About one and a half percent are children who got infected from mothers during pregnancy. There are 103 HIV-infected children in Georgia.
As a result of blood transfusion, 0.5 percent of HIV-infected people were infected.
What is HIV?
What is HIV?
The human immunodeficiency virus was discovered at the end of the last century. The epidemic in the United States began in 1981, later spreading to the whole world. It is believed that the virus entered the United States from Africa.
As a result of infection, immunity weakens. For several years, the process goes unnoticed, and AIDS – acquired immunodeficiency syndrome – develops.
Getting infected with HIV does not mean that the person has AIDS. An infected person gets AIDS only if they are not properly treated – their immunity is weakened so much that they cannot cope with any disease.
Today HIV is no longer a death sentence. While there is no way to completely get rid of the virus, it is quite possible to stop its multiplication and weaken the immune system.
Thanks to modern methods of treatment, HIV has become a chronic disease. The virus remains in the body, but does not harm it. As a result of treatment, patients live a fulfilling life.
The earlier the virus is found, the more effective the treatment. Infected people take one or two pills a day, there are almost no side effects of the drugs.
The main thing is that the person taking the course is no longer a distributor of the virus.
Early detection of the disease is important for pregnant women – if an infected mother takes the necessary drugs in the first trimester of pregnancy, the child will not become infected.
Modern treatment is also important because it helps to prevent the spread of HIV – as a result, the presence of the virus in the body is reduced to a minimum, and the patient ceases to be a source of the spread of infection.
The diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS is free of charge in Georgia. The programme is co-financed by the Georgian government and the Global Fund.
The Global Fund also finances harm reduction programmes. As part of the Harm Reduction Network which operate in 11 Georgian cities, there are 14 centres that offer various services to injecting drug users.
They are provided with single use syringes and offered various kinds of medical assistance. One of these centres is called NERA+. The centre’s director, Professor Manana Sologashvili, told us about some of the problems that HIV-positive visitors of the centre face because of their diagnosis
Three methods of HIV/AIDS transmission:
- Unprotected sex.
- Through blood (unsterile medical instruments, syringes, transfusions of infected blood).
- Vertically, from mother to child.
HIV/AIDS is not transmitted by airborne droplets, through handshakes, kissing, hugging, using a shared bathroom/toilet or through safe sex.
Recent trends identified in Georgia
- Recent research indicates that the spread of HIV through the use of drug injection is not increasing. According to Maka Gogia, manager of the Harm Reduction Network programme, this is due to the free distribution of single-use syringes.
- The number of cases of HIV transmission from woman to man to man through heterosexual intercourse has grown.
- The number of people infected in hard-to-reach groups such as men who have sexual contact with other men has increased.
- Late diagnoses. Mari Chokheli, coordinator of the Open Society – Georgia public health programme fund, said that some 103 children would not have been born with HIV if their mothers had been screened.
- An uninformed population which causes continued spread of the virus on one hand, and stigma and discrimination of those infected on the other.
- The Global Fund, which finances treatment programs for AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, will phase out its activities in Georgia by 2020. Financing for these programmes will need to be provided entirely by the government. Currently, the state partially funds the purchase of medicine, but it is not yet clear whether it will finance harm reduction programmes.
- Georgia’s drug policy, which calls for criminal prosecution of drug users. Experts say that it will be difficult for the state to finance a harm reduction programme since recipients don’t trust the government. “The Global Fund currently distributes syringes anonymously, but how can the state spend money on anonymous users? Drug addicts won’t come for syringes if the program isn’t anonymous,” says Maka Gogia.