'Pealtnägija': HIV prevalence among Ukraine refugees same as in Estonia

HIV test.
HIV test. Source: ERR

Some 55,000 refugees from Ukraine have arrived in Estonia since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. Despite claims such as that made by MP Mart Helme (EKRE) in April that incoming refugees would bring with them a wave of infectious diseases, including HIV, public health experts note that any illnesses refugees could be carrying are actually already present in Estonia.

37-year-old Liza is one of some 55,000 war refugees from Ukraine currently in Estonia.

"I was sleeping, and around 4:30 in the morning I heard planes flying low; I'm a very light sleeper, so I heard everything," Liza recalled. "I went out, then I heard my aunt screaming that war had broken out."

Liza is also one of the refugees that some people had warned about — a young mother, but also someone living with HIV. "I've lived with this status for 15 years already," she said. "I feel fine, good. I started receiving HIV treatment six years ago."

According to Aljona Kurbatova, head of the Infectious Diseases and Drug Abuse Prevention Department of the National Institute for Health Development (TAI), statements like Helme's address of the Riigikogu in April, in which he claimed that HIV and other infectious diseases would "make a comeback" in Estonia after being brought in by refugees from Ukraine, are completely unfounded.

"Estonia and Ukraine aren't that different of countries," Kurbatova said. "All those diseases that people who have had to move or are on the move to other countries due to the war might have, they're present in Estonia as well. We should be thinking first and foremost about how we're tackling our own problems here in Estonia, not immediately jumping to pointing fingers at people."

Based on information from Kurbatova and other experts in the field, the the EKRE deputy chair's statement

While it is true that the prevalence of HIV is higher in Ukraine than in Estonia, it isn't by much. "Rather, it was a question of how many people there are who need various additional support here, whether healthcare-related assistance or social assistance."

Most refugees with HIV already under treatment in Ukraine

As late as February 23, Liza wouldn't have ever dreamed of ending up in Estonia. At age 22, the Mykolaiv resident was raped. It turned out that the rapist had HIV, and half a year later, she was diagnosed with HIV, which she will have for life.

"Nowadays, one can live a long and quality life with HIV," the TAI department director explained. "We've long since stopped calling it a fatal [infection]. These stereotypes about HIV treatment belong in the Stone Age. If they take care of their health, take their meds and are under medical supervision, people living with HIV live fulfilling lives just like anyone else."

And so Liza led a regular life working as a real estate agent in her hometown on the Black Sea coast. Over two long-term relationships, neither partner was infected with HIV. Late last year, Liza also got pregnant with her current partner, and under medical supervision was preparing to give birth. She was 35 weeks pregnant when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

She initially believed that the war would be over soon, or at least that hostilities wouldn't reach her in Mykolaiv, but after having to take shelter in a basement, she nonetheless made the decision to flee Ukraine.

The journey via Odesa, Chisinau, Warsaw and Riga to Tallinn was incredibly difficult for Liza, who had reached the final weeks of her pregnancy. She was afraid she would start going into labor on the bus — on top of worrying about how a refugee with HIV who is pregnant to boot would be received.

Liza had reached out to an HIV center in Estonia before leaving Ukraine already, and ended up under the care of the Estonian Network of People Living with HIV (EHPV), which is led by Latšin Alijev.

"Based on current figures, more than 70 people infected with HIV have registered themselves in our country," Alijev said. "Specifically people who have arrived from Ukraine. Some 30 people, or nearly half of them, have stopped by us."

According to Kurbatova, the majority of people with HIV to arrive in Estonia were already previously aware of their diagnosis and under treatment in Ukraine as well.

"They wanted to continue treatment, and this despite the fact that they also had a lot of other concerns they had to cope with on a daily basis," she highlighted.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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