While HIV among gay men is on an increase in the whole of Europe, the Czech gay community is particularly badly hit by the infection – every year up to 80 percent of all new cases in the Czech Republic are among men having sex with men.
It makes the country stand out in European surveillance statistics.
There are several factors that contribute to this recent upswing trend, and individual behavior is just one of them. The strong stigma attached to HIV and absence of government-funded prevention campaigns equally contribute to the rise of HIV numbers.
“There is still no effective national HIV strategy that would roll out prevention programs targeted to gay community,” said Robert Hejzak, the Board Director of Czech AIDS Help Society, the largest Czech NGO that since 1989 raises HIV awareness and helps people living with HIV in the country.
“The older generation has the outdated image of HIV as a death sentence, while the young generation has many misconceptions about HIV transmission. HIV is a social taboo. I’ve met many people who have been diagnosed but are too frightened to talk about it because of the stigma that remains,” adds Hejzak.
With one in four infected people not being diagnosed, hundreds of people are unaware they have the virus. People who are not diagnosed, do not have the drugs they need, they remain infectious, and the virus is spreading like wildfire among Czech gay community. That is why voluntary HIV testing is a crucial pillar of HIV prevention. The recent unfounded criminal complaint filed by the Prague Sanitary Office against 30 HIV-positive men accused of spreading a contagious disease was a step back in HIV prevention as it fuels the HIV stigma and scares people off from HIV testing.
The government needs to urgently open discussion about several new HIV prevention tools already in use elsewhere in the world and introduce rapid and home testing, pre- and post-exposure prophylaxes, and recognize the importance of treatment as prevention.
“People living with HIV can take antiretroviral medication to lower the amount of virus in their blood, reducing the risk of transmission to their sexual partners to virtually zero. We must also stop the criminalization – HIV is a disease, not a crime,” Hejzak said.
This Op-Ed was contributed by Czech AIDS Help Society / Česká společnost AIDS pomoc.
More information about HIV testing locations in the Czech Republic at www.hiv-testovani.cz.