"To Keep Them, Us, Alive"
Ukraine's Newest Struggle: Fighting HIV/AIDS

by Joseph Sywenkyj

In Ukraine, in the cities of Odessa, Mykolaiv, and areas in the southern and eastern parts of the country, cases of HIV/AIDS are skyrocketing. While I was in Ukraine, cases of HIV were for the first time being documented in the western region of the country along the Hungarian border.

Intravenous drug use has brought the disease to disastrous levels and has helped spread the virus into all communities: heterosexual, homosexual, rich, and poor. Also at play is Ukraine's fledging economy and dysfunctional healthcare system. UNAIDS recently reported that while there are up to 72,000 known cases of HIV in Ukraine it is believed that up to 1% of Ukraine's population of 50 million is HIV-positive. As far back as June 2000, the BBC reported that "Ukraine is in the grip of the worst HIV epidemic in Europe." The BBC also stated that within ten years Ukraine expects a million-and-a-half AIDS related deaths.

While in Ukraine, I worked with several foreign and Ukrainian non-governmental humanitarian aid organizations in my quest to explore the HIV/AIDS epidemic. These groups include: Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders (MSF), Life Plus, The All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, and an organization named Faith, Hope, Love.

I was witness to human rights abuses and poor conditions in several hospitals. However, I also found glimmers of hope. I met several young HIV-positive activists who are attempting to give back to their communities by raising awareness and counseling others who are HIV-positive. I was moved by their conviction and strength to make a difference. Equally encouraging was meeting several Ukrainian and foreign doctors who are working hard to make a difference in the lives of people who have very little.

Today Ukraine is facing a health crisis. HIV/AIDS is destroying lives, families, and communities. As in many parts of the world, very few people in Ukraine who suffer from the effects of HIV/AIDS can afford the necessary medication to keep them healthy and alive.

This project has been made possible by generous support from: The Visual Arts Foundation, The Ukrainian Medical Association of North America, and The Ukrainian National Home of Willimantic, Connecticut. Photographs and text © Joseph Sywenkyj 2002

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