AIDS may be rising, but Romania won't admit it

July 18, 1994|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

BUCHAREST, Romania -- Warnings of a new AIDS crisis are echoing among volunteers fighting the disease, but Health Minister Iulian Minu -- once the personal physician of executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu -- is ignoring them.

Critics say the seeming indifference reflects a desperate attempt to avoid more of the worldwide publicity that accompanied the discovery of Romania's AIDS babies in 1990.

"A tragedy awaits us," predicted Marina Georgescu, one of the founders of ARAS (Romanian Association Against Aids), a privately funded organization. "AIDS has become a political issue here. The Ministry of Health does nothing about it, it wants to forget about it, pretend it doesn't exist."

Yet information collected by ARAS, as well as Romanian and other experts, indicates that AIDS is about to explode here.

The government says that 2,547 children and 189 adults were registered with AIDS in the four years ending in March, but ARAS dismisses those numbers.

Hundreds of people have approached its community volunteer projects, ARAS says. Many have AIDS. Its AIDS hot line has worked full time for the four hours it has operated every evening over the past six months.

A Western expert in Bucharest, who asked not to be named, agreed.

"Mincu won't admit AIDS is a problem," he said. "Nobody knows ultimately how many children -- or adults -- have AIDS. Many AIDS children are still in institutions you wouldn't dream of. There are villages in Transylvania where they are still chained to cots. Plus there is no hygiene training. And any form of birth control is a no-no.

"We are now seeing vertical transmission -- from mother to child -- for the first time. And older children of 13, say, or 14 who had appeared healthy but are only now coming down with illnesses," he said. "If the Health Ministry had said 'Let's stamp this out' and made a concerted effort it could have done so. But no, there is this great national pride thing."

Efforts to contact Dr. Mincu were unsuccessful. A "press department" at the ministry has become notorious for obstruction. A Western news agency in Bucharest asked more than a month ago for statistics on AIDS, for example. The department demanded to know why such questions should be asked. It then said a written request should be made. The agency is still awaiting the reply.

At the beginning of this month, the main opposition in Romania called for a vote of no confidence in the government. One of its complaints was against the Health Ministry, which it charged had misused aid from the World Health Organization. Other charges involve HIV-contaminated blood banks.

Critics pointed out that Dr. Mincu's fame does not come only from giving Ceaucescu his insulin shots. He is also one of the doctors who devised the notorious "Communist diet" touted as the ultimate in healthy eating under Ceaucescu. The diet said meat and other foods in short supply were unhealthy.

ARAS says ignorance about the disease is stunning. The government has done almost nothing to perform what ARAS believes to be the most vital task: informing the public about the disease and how it is spread.

In the 1980s, while Western countries began working to remove the stigma surrounding AIDS, Ceaucescu's Romania stuck its head in the sand, insisting that the disease had not penetrated the country. The condom, like other birth control methods, was banned to fulfill Ceaucescu's dream of a populous nation.

According to Simona Neagu, an ARAS volunteer, common perceptions include that the disease can only be picked up in hospitals and that a negative test is equivalent to a vaccination against the disease.

Many doctors are also ignorant. One of many cases cited by Ms. Neagu involved a woman who had contacted an ARAS community information project. The woman had been ostracized in her village. Though she was pregnant, doctors in the nearby town of Constanza were afraid to examine her: She gave birth at home, alone, with only her three toddlers present. Her husband had left her. ARAS provided her with food and advice.

"But we can't do this for the whole of Romania," said Ms. Georgescu. Funding has dwindled to almost nothing. Foreign charities are concentrating on children with AIDS.

A prurient attitude toward sex has also been a barrier.

"In schools, teachers say there is already too much sex on television, why should we add to it?" Ms. Georgescu said. There is also a continued aversion to birth control, encouraged by Ceaucescu policies and the Romanian Orthodox Church. Abortion today is the most common method of birth control. Condoms, when available, are expensive.

Yet, rather than tackle the problem, funding for AIDS research has halted since Dr. Mincu was appointed as a member of a new 1992 government filled with nonreformers. An AIDS research team headed by Dr. Emil Tomescu was disbanded.

The former director of Bucharest's Colentina hospital, Dr. Adrian Streanu-Chechea, had been alarmed at how quickly he had seen AIDS spreading. "He said that if two years ago there were two cases, now there are 16. . . . Perhaps because of such remarks he was pushed out," said Ms. Georgescu.

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