Hundreds of thousands of soccer fans, most of them men, are set to arrive in Ukraine and Poland for Euro 2012, the monthlong European soccer championship that kicks off Friday.
But what’s expected to take place off the field has health experts concerned. An estimated 360,000 Ukrainians — more than 1 percent of the population — are infected with the HIV virus or AIDS, the highest rate in Europe. Sex workers are one of the hardest-hit groups.
All these visiting men, lots of alcohol and the availability of prostitution could result in a wave of new infections. Health officials in Ukraine are doing their best to prevent that.
Twice a week, workers from ENEY, an anti-AIDS group, hit the streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and visit pockets of the city where prostitutes congregate to provide counseling and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.
Yulia Vorodina says she’s worked with ENEY two years, helping those who have nowhere else to turn.
“We provide services to those who need us. Those that have some money don’t work with us. They can get their own condoms and visit clinics themselves,” she says.
The workers’ bus comes to a halt near a rundown sauna complex on Kiev’s outskirts.
Six young women dressed in micro-miniskirts, black imitation leather jackets and sky-high needle heels emerge from the shadows.
One of them, 23-year-old Vika, says that some women don’t use condoms because they can earn more that way.
But she says that thanks to ENEY, she and her girlfriends no longer have unprotected sex.
“We protect ourselves, always. We work, you could say, according to instructions,” she says. “Because in this line of work, you have to be protected.”
Fans From Across The Continent
For European soccer fans, Euro 2012 is second in importance only to the World Cup. That means large contingents of fans will be coming from across the continent for extended stays in Ukraine.
“So it means that there will be more women involved in sex work. There will be more alcohol taken. It means that there will be more risks for people having unprotected sex,” says Oksana Matiyash with the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine.
Matiyash says that the overall rate of new infections has dropped considerably from two years ago. But rates via heterosexual intercourse are on the rise due to prostitution — which is illegal in Ukraine but widely tolerated — and partners of intravenous drug users.
HIV/AIDS infection rates among prostitutes are usually 1 to 3 percent, but in Ukraine, they are close to 9 percent, and sometimes more, she says.
“The highest HIV prevalence is in Donetsk, which is going to be one of the city sites for Euro 2012,” Matiyash says. “HIV prevalence among sex workers there is more than 30 percent.”
The HIV/AIDS Alliance says that some 70,000 prostitutes work in Ukraine, though that figure could be higher.
Government To Provide Information
Government officials say that they’ll inform the fans about the dangers of unprotected sex, but forbidding them from visiting prostitutes would be impossible and counterproductive.
“No one can forbid something like that. You have to understand this. Information is the key element for prevention,” says Tetiana Aleksandrina, the head of Ukraine’s state service on HIV and AIDS.
But AIDS groups say that in preparation for the championship, police are cleaning the streets of prostitutes. As a result, many have gone underground — but continue to work.
And that, says Matiyash of the HIV/AIDS Alliance, means many sex workers won’t be getting the help they need.
Back at the ENEY truck, Tatyana Klimova, a clinician, tells a young woman the results of her HIV test are negative. The woman smiles with relief.
But Klimova says team diagnoses three women with HIV every month. There was one just last week.
What these numbers will be after Euro 2012 is anybody’s guess.