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The co-ordinator is Asel Temirosa, the young volunteers are 21 year old Marlen Madybaevo, 20 year old Myrza Moldobenova, and 16 year old Vany Blisnukov. Since , the Red Crescent has mobilized thousands of volunteers to spread the HIV prevention message to drug users, sex workers and the communities most at risk. Clutching a large bag of condoms and syringes, Sasha makes his way to a truck stop opposite the entrance to the Mittal Steel factory, the largest employer in the central Kazakh town of Temirtau.
Nervously, two women approach Sasha as he hands over the bag to help them with their work. It sticks to you, preventing you from ever washing yourself clean. Most of those infected are injecting drug users who share needles. Temirtau, a depressed mining town, lies on one of the many drug-trafficking routes that have opened up from Afghanistan across Central Asia to Russia and Europe, after the fall of the Taliban. But the problem is not just particular to Temirtau. Kazakhstan has the highest rate of infection in Central Asia, with HIV cases reported in all its major cities.
In the past decade, the number of those infected has risen to 6, from , although unofficially, the number is believed to be at least three times higher. In a country with an estimated , heroin users and 20, sex workers, many of whom use drugs, the Kazakh Red Crescent Society has made HIV prevention one of its priority programmes. Equal to Equal Peer education has proven to be the most effective approach. Since the programme began in , 56 sex workers and two former drug users have become volunteers.
They persuade their colleagues to go for testing or visit the increasing number of centres, run by the State or the Red Crescent, where drug users can get clean needles and syringes. In a climate fuelled by stigma and discrimination it is difficult work and they receive toiletries, mobile phones and internet cards as incentives. This age group is the one most at risk of HIV infection, whether through unprotected sex or drug use, accounting for more than 60 per cent of new infections.
More than 1, young people in Kazakhstan are involved in spreading the HIV prevention message to their peers. In schools and universities, on the streets, and in the discos, volunteers from the age of 14 distribute condoms and information on sexually-transmitted infections. I got infected with HIV at For staff.