17 Feb 2014
By UNDP Online Communications Assistant James Brindley -
In many ways Sherzhod is the face of Uzbekistan’s younger generation; he is a tech-savvy urban youth who is always on the hunt for next idea. Right now he works a typical job that a 22-year-old could expect, but dreams about a future career in medicine, so he knows that extra studying lies near in the future. Like many of his peers in Uzbekistan, he is expected to get married and start a family, but for now he is content to pursue his career and to try and make an impact.
He is also living with an illness. In reality, he told me during an interview at the offices of the NGO where he works in Tashkent, his illness is not that bad. There are plenty of things that could make his life harder and shorter, but in the scheme of things he is relatively healthy. What distresses him more are not his illness’s symptoms, but its reputation, and the fact that he cannot tell anyone about it. Sherzhod is not his real name, and he is one of an approximate 24,000 Uzbek people who are HIV-positive.
HIV is a persistent problem in Uzbekistan, in particular among the nation’s large demographic of people under twenty five. While rates of infection are slowing, and the availability of treatment is on the rise, a lack of public knowledge about HIV, the prominence of harmful misconceptions, well-established stereotypes, and discrimination make life difficult for people living with HIV.
It is often a daunting task for young professionals to advance in any field, either by studying or by ascending the career ladder. Despite this, Sherzhod is highly motivated and uses his resources to the fullest. He currently works for a local NGO that works in the HIV field, he runs a support group for youth living with HIV, earns a living to support himself, and studies at a technology school.
Despite his considerable experience and focus, achieving his primary ambition of becoming a doctor will require HIV tests. He has little faith that if he takes these tests, the results will be kept confidential; even amongst his peers Sherzhod is reluctant to speak about his condition. He recalls one time when a close friend, after hearing about Sherzhod’s status, simply stopped talking to him. The fear that his diagnosis will become public has meant that this dream has been put on hold, so he intends to pursue his second interest in ecology.
In spite of the challenges and limitations that Sherzhod faces, he is determinedly positive in his day-to-day life. He finds that by committing his efforts to NGOs, and having a positive influence on the lives of others, he has found a powerful coping mechanism in overcoming the challenges that he faces. Through a support group he has now found friends who share his diagnosis and the responsibilities that go along with it.
Sherzhod feels that the success that he has found, despite his illness, is not an exception to the rule but rather an indication of the will of many young people living with HIV. If it were not for the stigma and discrimination surrounding his HIV status, he would have the same opportunities of every other enthusiastic youth. He and his peers would be engaged and appreciated members of society.
So I asked him, ‘why does these stereotypes exist, and why aren’t they going away?’
The problem, Sherzhod said, is perception.
There is information in the public sphere about how HIV is prevented, but not about how it can be treated, nor how the advancement to AIDS can be slowed or even stopped. The result, Sherzhod said, is the destructive misconception that a HIV diagnosis is paramount to a death sentence. The reality is that people living with HIV can live full, happy and productive lives, but this is all too often overlooked in public opinion. Combined with other persistent stereotypes about HIV, this makes the public perception of the lives of youth living with the diagnosis, like Sherzhod, rather bleak.
This misconception, Sherzhod says, is often also shared by people living with HIV. An image of HIV distorted by popular opinion, combined with a fear of sharing their status with others, means that people living with HIV will often not seek the treatment and assistance they require. The fear is that by doing so, they will identify themselves as HIV-positive. The resulting lack of treatment means that HIV can quickly advance to AIDS.
I expect the answer to my next question to be ‘education’, and Sherzhod doesn’t disappoint. He said it is through breaking myths and supplying information that you can overcome misperceptions. This can be done through films, media, billboards and public messages, showing the reality of living with HIV.
Another solution is to limit the taboo that surrounds HIV by making it a topic of conversation – something discussed in schools, universities and at public events. More importantly, conversation about HIV is needed within families. If people living with HIV feel they are able to share their status with those closest to them, they are more likely to get the treatment they need, and live longer, more enjoyable and happier lives.
Sherzhod intends to continue to work in the NGO field and explore his interest in ecology. When he feels that he can be more open with his status, he also hopes to work with doctors in pursuing a vaccine for HIV. Personally, he feels that it is unlikely that a vaccination will be found, but knows that the search gives people hope - in itself a worthwhile outcome.
He also looks forward to a time when he and his peers can share their real names.
Learning more about UNDP's work to combat HIV in Uzbekistan here