In many ways Sherzhod is the face of Uzbekistan’s younger generation.
He is a tech-savvy 22-year-old with big plans for the future, ideally with a career in medicine.
Like many of his peers in Uzbekistan, he wants to get married and start a family, but for now his goal is to pursue his career and try to make a positive impact on people’s lives.
But he is also living with a virus.
Sherzhod (not his real name) is one of approximately 30,000 Uzbek people who are HIV-positive.
During our interview at the NGO office in Tashkent where he works, Sherzhod tells me his condition is not really that bad. There are plenty of things that could make his life harder and shorter, but overall, he is relatively healthy.
What bothers him more than the symptoms are the stigmas and the veil of secrecy under which he lives.
HIV is a persistent problem in Uzbekistan, in particular among the nation’s large demographic of people under 25.
While HIV incidence has slowed down and the availability of treatment is on the rise, there is still a lack of public knowledge about HIV.
Harmful misconceptions and discrimination persist, making life difficult for people living with HIV.
It is can be a daunting task for young professionals to advance in any field but despite this, Sherzhod remains motivated and is using his resources to the fullest. Not only is he working for a local healthcare NGO, he runs a support group for young people living with HIV, and is studying at a technology school.
Despite his considerable experience and focus, achieving his primary ambition of becoming a doctor will require HIV tests.
He has little faith that if he takes these tests, the results will be kept confidential – even amongst his peers.
In spite of the challenges and limitations that Sherzhod faces, he is determinedly upbeat in his day-to-day life. He has found that having an optimistic influence on the lives of others is a powerful coping mechanism. And through the support group, he has found friends who share his diagnosis and the challenges that go along with it.
I ask Sherzhod, “Why do these stereotypes exist, and why aren’t they going away?”
The problem, he says, is perception.
There is information in the public sphere about how HIV is prevented, but not about how it can be treated. The result is a destructive misconception that HIV is a death sentence.
The reality of people living with HIV and enjoying full, happy, and productive lives is all too often overlooked.
Compounding the problem is the pervasive fear of people living with HIV in sharing their status with others. People with HIV thus often do not seek the treatment and assistance they require which in turn means their HIV can quickly progress to AIDS.
So what can be done?
Sherzhod answers with one word: education. He says that only through education can we destroy the myths and overcome the misconceptions.
And with technology today, there are so many ways to achieve this: films, media, billboards, and public messages can all be used to show the reality of life with HIV.
Another solution is to remove the stigma by engaging the conversation. Getting people talking – in schools, universities, and at public events – will go a long way.
More importantly, however, conversation is needed within families. If people living with HIV feel comfortable sharing their status with those closest to them, they are more likely to get the treatment – and support – they need.
Sherzhod intends to continue working in the NGO field and pursuing his studies. When he feels that he can be more open with his status, he hopes to work with doctors in pursuing a vaccine for HIV.
He’s looking forward to a time when he and his peers can share their real names.