By Alice Elizabeth Taylor
World AIDS Day in Tirana

December 1st was World AIDS Day, an event that did not go unmarked in Tirana. As a part of the annual Christmas market held at Skanderbeg Square, several local NGOs set up stands giving out free booklets, condoms, information, whilst helping to raise awareness about an issue that deserves more attention.

The first World AIDS Day was held in 1988 on December 1st, now in its 30th year, it has become an opportunity for people across the world to unite in the fight against HIV, and to show support for those that are living with it, and to commemorate those that have died from an AIDS-related illness.

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus is spread through certain bodily fluids and is an infection that attacks the body’s immune system. Over time HIV can damage so many T cells that it means the body is no longer able to fight off infections and disease. If left untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, otherwise known as AIDS. No cure for either of the two exists but as long as it is caught in good time and is controlled properly, the individual can lead a normal and healthy life. Those who receive proper treatment in good time can live without having any symptoms or side effects whatsoever, often living as long as those who are not infected.

Globally there are over 37 million people who are living with HIV and to date, an estimated 35 million people have died of either HIV or AIDS, making it one of the most destructive pandemics that the world has ever known. Today, advances in science have meant that HIV is no longer the death sentence that it once was and there also laws in place to protect those that are living with the disease.

Figures from UNAIDS state that in 2017 there was an estimated 1400 women, men, and children living with HIV or AIDS in the country. The same statistics suggest that up to a third of infected individuals, do not realize that they have it, or are not undergoing any form of treatment. Whilst many believe that the contraction of these diseases is only a risk if you are a drug addict or a homosexual man, the reality is that anyone who is sexually active and does not use condoms could potentially be at risk.

The problem in Albania is that there is such a stigma associated with the disease, as well as a lack of general STI testing, and a sense of shame around sexual activity, that many people are not seeking the help that they need. Regular sexual health testing should be a standard for anyone that is sexually active but unfortunately, many are too embarrassed to visit a doctor, whilst countless others do not have the means. When it comes to homosexual individuals, the problem gets even worse.

LGBTIQ individuals are one of Albania’s most marginalized communities. ‘Out’ individuals face being ostracized by their family, employers, and friendship groups, whilst countless others live in fear and shame, never revealing their true selves. There are even shelters set up in Tirana to provide accommodation, refuge, medical care, and other support services to LGBTIQ individuals who have suffered abuse and/or violence because of their sexuality. Albanian attendees to the annual Pride March, go in disguise with balaclavas, wrap around glasses, and hoodies to hide their true identities.

In a country where these people are forced to live on the fringes of society as well as to conceal their sexual preferences, the risk of HIV and AIDS is even higher. With lack of access or education on contraception as well as little to no access to testing facilities, these individuals are at risk of contracting and then spreading the disease between other members of the community as well as many married and ‘straight’ individuals who live double lives.

One Albanian NGO is working hard to reach these individuals and to provide them with the support and help that they need. Alga was recently launched in Tirana, Korce, Durres, Elbasan, and Vlore, and it will provide discreet and anonymous mobile testing facilities for anyone that wants to be tested. Individuals are assigned a unique code instead of having to hand over their names, and testing, results, and ongoing support can be offered to anyone that seeks it. Visitors to the centers are also able to pick up free condoms and lubrication, as well as find out more information about the risks of other diseases such as chlamydia, syphilis, and hepatitis.

HIV and AIDS is not just something that you see on television and you do not have to be an intravenous drug taker or LGBTIQ individual to be at risk. If anyone is engaging in unprotected sex with anyone else, there is a risk of contracting such diseases. We need to raise awareness of this fact, as well as to teach people that going to get tested is not shameful, it is responsible.