Chemsex and Drug Use Among MSM in Kyiv: New Challenges

Analytical community-based participatory research report based on the results of the study “Chemsex and drug use among MSM in Kyiv: new challenges”, 2017.

According to a bio-behavioral research conducted in Ukraine every two years with the support from the ICF “Alliance for Public Health”, men who have sex with men, is a group where the prevalence of HIV continues to grow. Thus, in Kyiv at the end of 2015 – the beginning of 2016, the prevalence of HIV among MSM was 15%.

According to the observations of social workers of the PO “ALLIANCE.GLOBAL”, that carries out outreach work through gay dating mobile applications, Internet web-sites, where sex workers’ ads are published, gay clubs and saunas in Kyiv, in recent years, the number of MSM who use different chemical substances in a non-injecting way (amphetamines, ecstasy, LSD, oxybutyrate, etc.) has significantly increased, which suggests that their sexual behavior becomes riskier and significantly increases the likelihood of HIV infection, viral hepatitis, and other STIs, both in terms of getting infection as well as transmitting the infection. To assess the drug scene, the risks of using chemical substances and the possible negative effects of sex under their influence in the context of the spread of HIV, viral hepatitis and other STIs, we conducted this study, the aim of which was to develop recommendations for more effective prevention of HIV infection, drug-related harm reduction and other related means and planning of specific services for subgroups of MSM who practice sex under the influence of chemical substances.

The purpose of the research is to study how the use of drugs, psychotropic substances and / or certain medications affects sexual behavior and mental health of MSM and how to minimize the risk of transmitting infections, in particular, HIV.

Read the report here.

“Kyianka+”: Understanding the Lives of Ukrainian Women Living with HIV

Author: Yana Kazmirenko, Ukraine

Vera Varyga (in the center) is often sharing the success of Kyianka+

Members of “Kyianka+” self-help group conduct regular meetings to exchange positive emotions, share success stories and learn how to resist psychological abuse.

Vera Varyga, leader and founder of the “Kyianka+” self-help group for women living with HIV, receives at least three anonymous phone calls a day to their hotline phone number +38 (067) 239 69 36 from women who have just learned about their HIV status. This hotline number is promoted at the HIV testing locations. Vera’s words may have a significant influence on the future lives of these women and their ability to accept their status and move on.

“Kyianka+” group, operating with support from ICF “AIDS Foundation East-West” (AFEW-Ukraine), was created three years ago, and has already helped more than 150 women. Women living with HIV attend monthly meetings, participate in master classes and get psychological counselling.

“It was very difficult for me to accept my HIV status. I received my first psychological assistance from another woman living with HIV only two years after I was diagnosed. During my first self-help group session, I cried a lot, but women supported me, believed in me and showed me that I am not an outcast. Now, in my groups, I see other girls crying like I was,” says Vera.

In the district hospital of Kharkiv region, Vera had to deal with cruel and unfriendly attitude from staff, which was typical of the Ukrainian provincial medical facilities back in the early 2000s. People diagnosed with HIV were perceived as socially dangerous elements, almost criminals.

Today Vera is a role model – a self-assured woman, a mother of two healthy boys, a beloved wife. She is very friendly, laughs a lot and loves her coral lipstick.

Difficulty of disclosure

At “Kyianka+” sessions, women share their concerns and success stories, trying to find their own way to get on with their lives.

“For example, we conduct role plays during which we model HIV-status disclosure to different people: mothers, partners, children, bosses or health workers. Mothers usually face the most difficult task of telling their sons or daughters about their status. Preparation for such disclosure takes more than a year, and we recommend having a psychologist present: it is hard for a mother not to burst out crying in such a situation,” Vera explains.

Vera is proud of the atmosphere in her group: all the girls get along well, not least because of the set of rules that they developed together:

  1. Confidentiality: nothing discussed in the group can be shared outside of the group.
  2. Attendance is not allowed for women who currently use drugs – they have other values. If they succeed in quitting – they are always welcome.
  3. No criticizing: all women are free to express their opinions.
  4. No medical advice or recommendations: treatment can only be prescribed by a doctor.
  5. The group is for mutual support: you get help and you give help.

All responsibility is on her

Men and women react differently when they hear about HIV-positive status. Men usually need a clear plan, while women often feel panic and become depressed. In our culture, the challenges of solving health problems and thinking about the future of the family often fall upon women.

“Our task is to teach a woman to love and respect herself, to find time for treatment and to make her health a priority. It is like an emergency situation in a plane: first put on your mask, and then put a mask on your child,” Vera says.

Traditions are another area of concern for Ukrainian women: what will the parents say? How will children, neighbours, colleagues react? Is my husband going to leave me? Women have to deal with stigma: everything they had thought about HIV before becomes part of their personal story.

Teaching to share and to help

Anna Lilina, a 30-year-old woman from Kyiv, was diagnosed with HIV when she was three months’ pregnant. Doctors’ prescriptions saved her daughter from getting HIV. Back in the municipal AIDS Center, Anna learned about the self-help group, but she only went there later, when in trouble. She and her daughter were thrown on the street by her boyfriend, whom she had met at the hospital.

Anna Lilina took part in a photo shoot that raised awareness about violence

“My relatives gave me money to pay for the first and last months of the apartment rent. He suggested I moved in with him and spent the money to renovate his house and fix his car. When the money was gone, he forced me out into the street in winter,” Anna says.

Anna needed support and sympathy. Therefore, two years ago, she came to the self-help group.

“After every self-help group session, I get so much energy that it feels I have wings and I can fly, but with every stressful situation, I return to the ground, and feel depressed,” Anna confesses.

It is not only positive impressions that women share at the group. They also started exchanging clothes, baby formulas, information about babysitters and apartments for rent, vacancies and tickets to theatres.

Professional training courses in manicure, floristry, office-management and the English language help these women to change their lives and start making an income. Master classes are also an important part of the therapy, through which women do not only develop new skills and get a profession, but also make steps towards opening up.

Anna remembers how she tried to convince a guy who infected her to start taking antiretroviral therapy. He, however, was saying that AIDS is an invention of American doctors who want to make money. He did start taking the therapy, but only after he had fainted and had to be hospitalized.

“I do not mind anymore that I have HIV. I have met real friends and learned how to be happy about simple things. Volunteer work and organizing help for people in need – this is my new talent, and in the future I would like to become a social worker,” Anna shares.

The number of women in need of Anya and Vera’s help will only increase, as in April 2016 Kyiv joined the Fast-Track Cities initiative to accelerate and scale-up AIDS response, one of the goals of which to ensure that by 2020 ninety per cent of people living with HIV know their status and receive therapy.

Who needs you?

Group master class on felting toys

“Kyianka+” members have a secret Facebook chat to share their thoughts and concerns. The online group allows participants to interfere and help each other in critical situations. Among the most discussed are postings about psychological abuse, especially in discordant couples with an HIV-positive woman and HIV-negative man.

Vera says that her clients often have difficulties with setting the boundaries and counteracting manipulation. If a woman does not make it clear that her status is not a humiliation, her partner’s manipulative actions may reach new levels. For example, he may decide to take charge of the family budget.

“I was stunned by the stories of our clients. To avoid a break-up, one woman’s husband was threatening his wife to tell everyone about her status. Another man said he would disclose this information at their son’s school. In another family, a husband and wife had not invested time to discuss the situation, and once, during a picnic with close friends, they had a fight. The man got drunk and yelled: who needs you now, you AIDS-ridden cow? This story echoed deeply in me – back in the day when I was pregnant, a doctor yelled at me in a similar way: you are ridden with AIDS, and you still want to have a baby?” Vera shares her emotions.

She is certain that with this one phrase that man said everything he thought about his partner and their relations. It is possible to forgive him afterwards, but it is not possible to trust him again. This breaks up the family, and all his reassurances and pleads for forgiveness are in vain – the couple had to discuss the situation earlier. After the picnic the couple broke up, and now they are undergoing therapy.

The Facebook post about blackmailing had a lot of responses: the participants shared links to study psychological tricks of manipulators, and the women who had similar experiences helped others with advice and recommendations on how to stand firm and raise their self-esteem.

Vera is very happy to see this meaningful participation of women. She hopes that her clients will eventually leave their worries behind and start living full lives, and that the most active of them will help organize such groups in every Ukrainian city.

How Kyiv Fights the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

Author: Yana Kazmirenko, Ukraine

The adoption of the Fast-Track Cities strategy resulted in launching of the HIV express-testing in all outpatient clinics in Ukraine’s capital. The strategy also allowed to increase the number of people who receive antiretroviral therapy.

The struggle against HIV/AIDS epidemic in Kyiv strengthened since the mayor Vitaliy Klitschko, signed the declaration in Paris. Apart from that, Kyiv was included into the Fast-Track Cities programme in April 2016 as a measure to fight AIDS. According to this programme, 90% of the citizens in 2020 should know about the disease, 90% of the infected ones should be getting treatment, and the treatment should be effective for 90% of the patients.

In the latest United Nations agency report on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and UN-Habitat as of 2015, the Ukraine’s capital entered the list of 27 most HIV/AIDS infected cities in the world. Alexander Yurchenko, the head physician at Kyiv AIDS centre, hopes that Kyiv will not be included into the newest rating. The programme has seen first success. 800 medical workers were trained, and every outpatient clinic in Kyiv received express-tests. The result of the test is available in as little as 20 minutes. There were 2,500 more individuals (compared with the previous year) who had tested their blood in a year.

A record amount of 555 people was included into the dispensary registration with the help of express-testing only over the first quarter of 2017. To compare: only 1300 people were registered in 2016, according to Yurchenko.

In his opinion, the situation in Ukraine’s capital with a population of three million people has improved. There were only around 5,000 people getting treatment in 2012, and now there are more than 7,000. It is planned to give treatment to 12,000 people by the end of the year.

Migrants and HIV

Yurchenko attributes Kyiv’s high position in the world ratings of HIV spread due to its attractiveness for migrants. 400,000 people come to work in the capital daily.

“Men who have sex with men (MSM) also tend to come to Kyiv, as it is hard for them to even live in such regional centre as Cherkassy. They attract a lot of attention in smaller cities. In the capital, they can find work, hide themselves, and find partners,” continues the interviewee.

The prevailing factor of HIV spread in Kyiv in 2012 was an injecting way of transmission. Now the predominant way has shifted to sexual transmission.

For instance, the story of the oldest patient in the capital of Ukraine. The man admitted that his wife was refusing sexual intercourse with him and he had to use the services of sex workers.

“Doctor, now I know what I will die from,” the old patient said jokingly, after he heard his diagnosis.

“According to statistics, you will die from cardiac ischemia, but we will control and monitor your HIV,” Yurchenko remembers his dialogue with the patient.

Surviving thanks to the Foundations

Kyiv’s mayor Vitaliy Klitschko stressed that one of the main responsibilities that Kyiv took within the framework of the Fast-Track Cities programme is the provision of sufficient amount of antiretroviral medicines for treatment of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

There would be significant progress in the implementation of the Fast-Track strategy if the government did not delay the supplies of medicines for antiretroviral therapy. This leads to patients receiving one month course of treatment instead of six or three months’ courses.

The variety of options in treatment schemes (around 38 of them) does not yet allow to pass the dispensing of medicines to the family doctors’ level. Yurchenko promised that there will be two or three variants of treatment made, and they will be passed on to the outpatient clinics as soon as the government supplies of medicines are in full scope.

Now patients literally survive at the expense of international and private foundations. On July 11, Kyiv has become the first Eastern European city where HIV-positive patients received dolutegravir (sixth generation medicine for antiretroviral therapy) at the expense of the Elena Pinchuk ANTI AIDS Foundation. The yearly course of medications will cost $170. This allows to increase the number of people who will receive the life-saving treatment in as early as 2018 at no additional cost.

The adoption of the law on mandatory HIV testing* can also bring the capital closer to the standards implemented by Fast-Track Cities. Alexander Yurchenko says that this law might be enacted by the end of the year.

As estimated by the experts, the number of HIV/AIDS infected people in the capital is 23,000 inhabitants. This is the tenth of the estimated figures in Ukraine – 250,000. There were 304,914 officially registered new cases of HIV infection in Ukraine since 1987. Since that time, there were 42,987 deaths from AIDS. The regions most affected with HIV infection, apart from Kyiv, are Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv, Donetsk, Mykolayiv and Odesa regions.

*AFEW International is not aware of the law on mandatory HIV testing and will advocate against such law.

Rapid HIV Testing was Discussed in Kyiv

Psychologists, social workers, medical personnel and other employees of four social bureaus in Ukraine gathered for the three-day training Conducting Voluntary Counselling and Testing on HIV with Rapid Tests that AFEW-Ukraine conducted on June 7-9.

“This training was useful because we had a closer look at the regulatory framework in the field of HIV testing, in particular in the work with minors because this procedure always caused many questions,” says Alina, the social worker from Kharkiv. “Besides, it was useful to get the information about personal and professional risks of HIV infection, what to do if such situation happens, and now everything is clear. The session of practical training in the development of pre- and post-test counselling skills has been a pleasure for me. The trainers showed what mistakes a counselor can make during counselling and how to avoid them.”

The aim of the training was to provide the participants with the knowledge and skills on the methodology of counselling related to HIV testing with rapid tests. During three days, the trainers focused on the overview of the HIV epidemic in the world and in Ukraine, aetiology, epidemiology, diagnostics, ways of HIV transmission. Stigma and discrimination, the impact of stigma on the epidemic, legal framework of HIV/AIDS, key elements of ethical and effective HIV counselling practices, pre- and post-test counselling were also discussed during the training.

The training was held within the framework of the project ‘Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations’ with the financial support of Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In August, AFEW-Ukraine plans to hold a coordination meeting for regional partners to plan the next ‘Bridging the Gaps’ project year.

“Kyianka+” has got additional funding

5_Interview-of-Vera-Varyga-for-pressSelf-help group for HIV-positive women in Kyiv, Ukraine “Kyianka+” (transl. as “Kyiv city woman”) has got additional funding from Gilead Sciences Europe Ltd and continues its active work under the project “Expanding immediate intervention model to ensure adherence to HIV and hepatitis C (“HCV”) treatment and improve quality of life for HIV positive women in Kyiv” to the full extent.

Starting from June 2016, the telephone hotline and on-line support via secretive Facebook group has been supplemented with additional self-help group activities. Thus, HIV-positive women of Kyiv city once again will be able to participate in the workshops and trainings on the different important aspects of living with HIV, including prevention of opportunistic infections and aging issues, study at the vocational courses for further employment, visit psychologist and simply spend their leisure time nicely and usefully in the company of like-minded women.

Let us remind you that self-help group “Kyianka+” was created in September 2014 as a result of collaboration between AFEW-Ukraine, Kyiv city branch of All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS and Positive Women of the World (PWW) in order to support and empower HIV-positive women in the Kyiv city.

Telephone hotline to support HIV+ women in Kyiv, Ukraine: +38 (067) 239 69 36