Posted by Jirair Ratevosian, February 14, 2011
“We are the pulse of the youth,” declares Isein Fetoski. He is describing SPY—Safe Pulse of Youth—a well established community-based organization in Serbia dedicated to the needs of MSM in and around Belgrade. I spent some time this week with Fetoski and the SPY crew to learn about the outreach and research activities performed here.
For more than five years, SPY (with support from the Global Fund) has implemented outreach services, including Internet outreach, promotion of voluntary counseling and HIV testing, and psychosocial support.
SPY staff (L to R): Loodi Nicky, Isein Fetoski, Dejan Zagrajski, Aleksandar HelterSkelter Skundric,and Ivan Ivanovic.,
Now, staff members report a disturbing trend of young MSM engaging in high-risk behavior—although “they are not lacking knowledge,” says Daniel Meskovic, co-founder of SPY.
In 2010, SPY received a community award from amfAR’s MSM Initiative to study the factors influencing HIV risk-taking behavior among MSM in Belgrade. “By understanding the patterns of HIV risk and sexual behavior and studying predictor variables such as personality and psychological factors, we are better able to meet the needs of MSM,” explained Meskovic. Until now, this type of research among MSM had not been carried out in Serbia.
While HIV prevalence among the general population in Serbia is low, as in many countries in the region, rates are notably higher among vulnerable groups; among MSM, HIV prevalence is estimated between 3.6- 6.1%. Internalized homophobia, stigma, and lack of appropriate health services are all factors fueling the spread of HIV among young Serbians. Homophobia remains deeply engrained in the Balkan culture, evidenced by the eruption of anti-gay violence during Belgrade’s gay pride march this past October.
Serbia’s economic and social problems, deepened by the global recession, are not making things easier. In fact, SPY and other stakeholders are acutely concerned that the Serbian government will no longer be able to finance free and anonymous testing for HIV. Despite that, the important work continues. As Fetoski explains, “We are fighting to save our own lives.”