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Balkan groups join forces to fight stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS

BELGRADE--Pressured to quit his job after telling his bosses he was HIV-positive, Boris Kovacic shares the plight of thousands in the Balkans who face prejudice because of a stubborn stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.

When he was diagnosed 10 years ago, Kovacic promptly informed the hospital where he worked as a nurse.

“They kept transferring me from post to post. Finally, when they wanted me to work in the hospital archives, a woman working there threatened to resign if I came,” he said.

“I realized that I had nothing to do there,” 43-year-old Kovacic said. Instead he turned to disability benefits for the chronically ill, which he began receiving six years ago.

He is now an official of USOP, an umbrella group of Serbian organizations helping people with HIV/AIDS.

“Because of stigma and discrimination, people sometimes do not tell anyone that they are HIV-positive,” Kovacic said. “Knowing what I know now I am not sure I would do so again.”

Although the overall infection rate is low in the Balkans region, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among youths is increasing rapidly, according to non-governmental organizations.

Officially the registered number of HIV-positive people is only 65 in Bosnia and 103 in Montenegro, but experts say the real figures could be at least 10 times higher.

In Montenegro, a tiny Adriatic state with only 660,000 inhabitants, the number of those infected has increased by 33 percent from 2005 to 2009, official figures show.

“The pervasive stigma and discrimination by health care providers and society at large against high-risk populations — and self-imposed isolation of people living with HIV and AIDS — further fuels the growth of the epidemic” in the western Balkans, a health NGO, Foundation PH Suisse, said in a 2010 report.

While patients have no trouble getting treatment and most countries of the former Yugoslavia often pay for medication, those with HIV/AIDS may not get other treatment such as dental work because many health workers fear infection.

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