Tue, Nov 30, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Russia's HIV epidemic rages largely unchecked

DPA , MOSCOW

Superman flexes his muscles on the cover of Steps, Russia's magazine for HIV sufferers, with a red bow emblazoned on his chest in place of "S" as he targets Russia's virtually unchecked HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Superheroic intervention is certainly needed in the former Soviet Union: Together with Ukraine, Russia now has the greatest number of new infections in the world, according to the World Bank.

Federal Russian health authorities this month said a 10 percent jump this year brought the total of registered HIV cases to 300,000, while the actual number of current infections is likely around 1 million to 1.5 million.

After HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, spread rapidly among intravenous drug users in the 1990s, the epidemic is today surging through the general population through heterosexual intercourse.

Despite the threat, the head of the federal AIDS center, Vadim Pokrovsky, notes that funding for education and prevention programs has actually been reduced to just 130 million roubles (US$4.5 million) a year.

Public education is urgently needed. Yet awareness campaigns in Russia may not be overly liberal: One earlier Western-funded drive encouraging use of condoms was cut short after opposition by the Orthodox Church, which cited erosion of moral values.

"How can you reasonably educate people if you always have to talk in terms of birds and bees?" complains Vladimir Mogilny of Infosvyaz, one of the longest established Russian AIDS prevention organizations.

Every day people call its telephone helpline to inquire what this "new" disease is they're hearing about called AIDS, he says.

According to surveys, only 30 percent of Russians regularly use condoms during intercourse.

"Trust in Russia still means not talking about such things in bed," says Viktoria Kazkova of the East-West AIDS foundation.

One common assumption is that an infected partner will simply be sure to practise safe sex, she adds.

Meanwhile, only about 4 percent of those in Russia who know they are HIV positive receive adequate medical treatment, estimates the UN organization UNAIDS.

The situation is most critical in the regions, mainly due to high treatment costs, says Mogilny of Infosvyaz.

Studies also showed that many provincial doctors know too little about the disease and may randomly change patient prescriptions according to the availability of medications.

HIV is still highly stigmatized in Russia. Surveys show that more than half of Russians believe it affects only prostitutes, homosexuals or drug addicts. But only 10 percent know that anyone is susceptible, thereby accelerating the rampage of the virus through all sectors of the population.

The World Bank forecasts that the number of HIV-infected people in Russia will fall between 5 and 14 million people by 2015, or about a tenth of the population.

"There is still a chance to ward off this disaster," said Bertil Lindblad, UNAIDS representative in Russia.

But this will require genuine political engagement in the fight, he stresses.

This year President Vladimir Putin spoke four times on the subject of health care in Russia but did not once mention the problem of HIV and AIDS.

Engagement above all means the government allocating realistic funding for prevention, say specialists.

"If the state does not invest money now, then it simply cannot do the math," says Mikko Vienonen, WHO representative in Russia.

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