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Young educators displaying their safe sex information materials. The co-ordinator is Asel Temirosa, the young volunteers are 21 year old Marlen Madybaevo, 20 year old Myrza Moldobenova, and 16 year old Vany Blisnukov. Since , the Red Crescent has mobilized thousands of volunteers to spread the HIV prevention message to drug users, sex workers and the communities most at risk. Clutching a large bag of condoms and syringes, Sasha makes his way to a truck stop opposite the entrance to the Mittal Steel factory, the largest employer in the central Kazakh town of Temirtau.
Nervously, two women approach Sasha as he hands over the bag to help them with their work. It sticks to you, preventing you from ever washing yourself clean. Urla is HIV-positive and one of the 20 or so women Sasha will talk to over the next few hours about practising safer sex, using clean needles and being regularly tested for sexually-transmitted infections.
Most of those infected are injecting drug users who share needles. Temirtau, a depressed mining town, lies on one of the many drug-trafficking routes that have opened up from Afghanistan across Central Asia to Russia and Europe, after the fall of the Taliban. But the problem is not just particular to Temirtau. Kazakhstan has the highest rate of infection in Central Asia, with HIV cases reported in all its major cities.
In the past decade, the number of those infected has risen to 6, from , although unofficially, the number is believed to be at least three times higher. In a country with an estimated , heroin users and 20, sex workers, many of whom use drugs, the Kazakh Red Crescent Society has made HIV prevention one of its priority programmes.
Peer education has proven to be the most effective approach. Since the programme began in , 56 sex workers and two former drug users have become volunteers. They persuade their colleagues to go for testing or visit the increasing number of centres, run by the State or the Red Crescent, where drug users can get clean needles and syringes.