From a Humble Start, Romania’s ARAS Expands Beyond the HIV Space

Asociaţia Română Anti-SIDA (ARAS; Romanian Association Against AIDS) was founded on April 10, 1992, just 3 years after the fall of communism, making it the first such organization in the country following a time when HIV was not officially acknowledged nor prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections discussed.

Asociaţia Română Anti-SIDA (ARAS; Romanian Association Against AIDS) was founded on April 10, 1992, just 3 years after the fall of communism, making it the first such organization in the country following a time when HIV was not officially acknowledged nor prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) discussed.

The American Journal of Managed Care® recently spoke with founding member and advocacy manager Nicoleta Dascalu to learn more about ARAS.

For more from our international series this year on global HIV/AIDS organizations, please check out our main HIV page to see interviews with CeSHHAR, Bruce House, and Helen Bygrave, MD, from Médecins Sans Frontières’ (Doctors Without Borders).

Transcript

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us how ARAS began?

My name is Nicoleta Dascalu. At present, I'm an advocacy manager with ARAS, which stands for Romanian Association Against AIDS. I'm one of the founding members, so I have been here since April 1992.

In December 1989, there was a huge revolution, which simply changed the system in Romania. We moved from communism to capitalism—more or less, we’re striving to be there. During the communist time, there were no rights to association. So there were no NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. The only NGO existing was the Romanian Red Cross Society. After ’89, the Romanian Red Cross was visited by different international Red Cross organizations, among which the International Red Cross Society discovered that there were, in orphanages mainly, a lot of HIV-positive children. The figure was, it seems, 10,000 children. And what the Red Cross did was, with the help of the International Red Cross Society, they trained and prepared young volunteers to start HIV prevention in high schools and schools and for the general population.

I was in the first generation, the first group of young people. I was a student at that moment. I was among the first Red Cross volunteers trained in HIV prevention. We were a group of about 20 people. We were meeting regularly in the Red Cross headquarters. We were talking about HIV prevention: meaning sex, condoms, things like this. And because at that moment, the Romanian Red Cross was not very open to these kind of topics; it was not a very supportive environment for us.

So we decided that now that communism was gone, we could have our own NGO. So we decided to have an NGO. And we started our own NGO. At that moment, the legislation required 32 or 33 founding members, if I remember well, so most of us were students. We were all volunteers. And this is how we started in Bucharest in April 1992. This is the very beginning of ARAS.

How have your services changed over the years?

At the very beginning, we were focused in 2 directions. One was prevention, because everybody said that the children had been infected in orphanages or the children in families had been infected in hospitals—so it was it was not a sexual transmission. But we were sure there were people infected with HIV by sexual transmission who were not tested. So we focused in 2 directions.

The first one was prevention for the general population, and the second one was support for the people living with HIV, and mainly for the families with children living with HIV, because most of them were in villages in very poor areas of the country. At that moment, there was no treatment for HIV in Romania, and there was this very big debate about who's responsible for the fact that these kids were infected with HIV. So these were the 2 directions at that moment.

Ever since we have expanded a lot, our objectives. So we have added a third one, which is advocacy for human rights. We call it advocacy for human rights, because we have here advocacy for access to medical services, to social services, legal changes, legal support. So, whatever is not prevention or direct support for people living with HIV and their families is advocacy. And we have also expanded a lot of our activities and our target groups. We work now with all vulnerable groups, groups or people vulnerable to HIV infection.

I'm talking from the point of view of the statistics, the official statistics in Romania: the people who inject drugs, so intravenous drug users; men who have sex with men, commercial sex workers; homeless. We have services for all vulnerable people.

Another major change in our activity, an objectives, is that we added STIs, not [from] the very beginning, but very soon after we started our services. We have added viral hepatitis, because it's often related to HIV. And also more recently, tuberculosis, because Romania is one of the European countries with the biggest figure of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis cases, still.