AIDS is currently not a large-scale problem in Slovakia, but as a Slovak saying goes, 'Whatever is not, may well be'.
While millions of people worldwide commemorated World AIDS day on December 1, the event passed largely unnoticed in Slovakia.
A handful of activists - around 20 - met for a candle march through the Slovak capital, the public Slovak Television (STV) aired the same beneficial concert as all other public television stations late at night, and that was about it.
It is no wonder. According to reports of the National Reference Centre for HIV/AIDS, since 1985, 119 people in Slovakia have been infected with the virus and 22 have died of AIDS. There have not been any registered cases of HIV infection in children under 15.
Although experts claim the real numbers could be five to ten times higher, Slovakia is still registering low numbers when compared with other countries. In the number of people living with HIV/AIDS per capita, Slovakia ranks 125th in the world, based on information from the CIA World Factbook 2002.
However, Slovaks need to realize that the good results of the past are no guarantee of a bright future and the fight is far from over.
This is especially true if we take into account that the low prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Slovakia has more to do with the country's isolation and fortunate location than public awareness and responsibility.
According to the AIDS Epidemic Update 2003 published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on November 25, the global AIDS epidemic "shows no signs of abating". Five million people became infected with HIV worldwide and three million died this year alone - the highest numbers ever.
And it is by no means a problem only of Africa, or some other distant regions. The new WHO report warns that eastern Europe "could become home to serious new HIV epidemics". Although the major outbreak should at present include only countries such as Russia and Ukraine, Slovakia has to undertake all efforts to make sure the epidemic stops at its borders.
The WHO claims that, in this region, HIV transmission is mainly a matter of intravenous-drug use and unsafe sex. And unsafe sex is not lacking in Slovakia.
Although no statistics on the use of condoms are widely available, the Slovak Family Planning Association NGO has concluded that Slovakia is "among the countries with the lowest number of contraception users, which is a result of the absence of information and education in this field".
The large Roma minority, among whom unsafe sex is common and information about sex especially scarce, could be one of the communities most vulnerable to the threat of sexually transmitted diseases.
The country is far from ready to face HIV/AIDS, and something needs to be done. There are two areas that will determine whether Slovakia is ready, or not, when an outbreak of HIV/AIDS hits Slovakia: education and social services.
Unfortunately, Catholics have been gaining ground in both. The attitude of the Catholic church towards condoms, the most effective way of protecting against HIV, is well known.
In a message addressed to Catholics that was released on World AIDS day, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, said that "the phenomenon of AIDS is a pathology of the spirit".
He also said that information campaigns should not be "based on policies that foster immoral and hedonistic lifestyles and behaviour, favouring the spread of the evil".
The Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) has been focusing on education for some time. The most recent example came this week, when the KDH made finances for schools their top priority in negotiations on the state budget for next year.
Education Minister Martin Fronc, a KDH member, has made several attempts to introduce more religious education into Slovak classrooms; the KDH wants teachers to have the right to refuse to teach things that contradict their beliefs.
Given the current policies of the Vatican, one can imagine that teaching about condoms could be a problem.
Under these circumstances, one would be naive to think that little-informed Slovak pupils can hope for more much-needed sexual education.
The state is becoming less and less involved in the social problems of the needy, including the Roma community. And the Catholic church is well aware of its chance.
"If the church manages to react well to social problems, one of the things that gave the church credibility in the past, it can do well," Marián Gavenda, spokesperson of the Slovak Bishop's Conference, told The Slovak Spectator in a recent interview, when discussing the future of the church in Slovakia.
It is only a question of time before church charities and other organisations step in to fill the vacancy left by the state, bringing not only assistance, but also dogma.
As the examples of developing countries show, this is not the way to go, especially in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
This is one of the areas where the EU may play a key and very positive role.
The union could provide much needed aid to education facilities and troubled regions and communities, without the risk of introducing dangerous myths into society.
We can just hope that the EU continues to have enough resources and political will to do so.
8. Dec 2003 at 0:00