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MSM group works to raise HIV awareness

[Kazakhstan] Inside Almaty's Sparticus bar, an Alliance volunteer distributes free condemns to customers.
Inside Almaty's Sparticus bar, an Alliance volunteer distributes free condemns to customers (David Swanson/IRIN)

Raising HIV awareness is no easy task, particularly amongst Kazakhstan's largely closeted gay community. But in a campaign aimed at doing just that, one local NGO is looking towards the Internet to reach members of the MSM community (men who have sex with men).

"This is a collective opportunity to share information on the spread of HIV/AIDS amongst the MSM community - not just in Kazakhstan, but throughout Central Asia," Igor Galkin, president of the Kazakh NGO Alliance, currently the only NGO working on the issue of MSM and HIV in the commercial capital, Almaty, told IRIN.

Speaking over a line of enthusiastic patrons at Almaty's Sparticus bar, one of a handful of gay venues that have sprung up since the country gained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Galkin believes the idea's time has come.

"We want to be an independent regional source of information for the MSM community. Through a centralised, regional website, we can reach more people."

According to health experts in the country, HIV/AIDS prevalence amongst the MSM group is low, but the risk of that changing cannot be underestimated.

Officially, some 4,600 HIV/AIDS cases are registered in the oil-rich nation, though many predict the real number to be closer to 20,000.

Dr Alexander Kossukhin, national programme officer for the UNAIDS office in Almaty, told IRIN that although the main mode of transmission was intravenous drug usage, he remained concerned over a gradual shift towards sexual transmission.

Dr Issidora Yerassilova, general director of the Kazakh Republican AIDS centre in Almaty, agreed. "Sexual transmission accounts for 20 percent of all infections," she told IRIN, noting however that in some parts of the country sexual transmission accounted for 35 percent of all infections.

Only 0.04 percent of all registered HIV cases were from MSM, Yerassilova said, conceding at the same time the real numbers may never be known.

"This group is just closed, given the taboo nature of homosexuality in Kazakhstan," the senior health official explained.

And while according to Galkin, only four members of the MSM community had been infected since 1999, keeping those numbers low was now his priority.

Working with a team of 12 volunteers, Alliance endeavours to boost the level of awareness amongst the MSM community by warning people about the modes of transmission and the risks involved, while at the same time distributing leaflets and condoms.

"We have received very positive feedback from the community," Galkin said, noting however that reaching everyone has proven a challenge. "Some people remain very much closed and are not open to receiving information."

It is precisely that attitude, coupled with traditional values and the stigma of homosexuality prevalent throughout much of Central Asia, that makes the yet to be funded website so promising.

Many small towns in Kazakhstan, the seventh largest country in the world, offer little to no information pertinent to the MSM community, while access to information in other Central Asian states looks equally bleak or worse.

NGOs working in other Kazakh cities have expressed an interest collaborating with Alliance, while NGOs and other groups working in neighbouring countries, including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, are also keen to participate.

Homosexuality remains largely prohibited by law in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, although Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan overturned the draconian Soviet laws prohibiting sex between men in 1998.

Still, many problems for this largely ignored risk group remain.

"On paper, the law has been cancelled in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but society is not yet ready to accept it," Galkin was quick to mention, emphasising the great difficulties they had in establishing their NGO in 2002, and a general lack of financial resources in operating.

Meanwhile, patrons back at the now raucous Sparticus club see the website as the start of something promising. "The level of awareness will be much higher - allowing more people in Kazakhstan and beyond a greater knowledge of exactly what the risks are," 23-year old Max Badilova told IRIN.

"People think the disease is really far away and will never affect them - when really the opposite is true," Andrew Zhussupov told IRIN, noting though there were many sources of information, none was specifically dedicated to the MSM community.

Not all people lived in urban areas and could go to clubs - this was a way to help them, the 31-year-old explained. "Not everyone understands the problems. The website would be one step in the right direction," he said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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