Moscow, 25 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A drug addict sits on the floor of a darkened room. A few meters away, a doctor is trying to save a young boy collapsed in a chair after sniffing glue.
This, however, is not a drug rehabilitation center but a wax figure exhibition warning children about the dangers of drug consumption.
The exhibit, called "On the Brink," has been touring Russian schools for several years as part of a drug prevention program supported by the Federal Drug Control Service.
Yevgenii Smirnov, one of the exhibition's young managers, gives graphic details of the damages wrought by drugs on the body and mind as he guides visitors through lifelike wax figures of drug addicts.
Children, he says, pointing to the figure of the collapsed boy, are increasingly prone to use toxic substances such as glue, petrol, and solvents.
"Toxic addiction: statistics show that 66 percent of children who try [toxic substances] for the first time die straight away after the first use," Smirnov says. "Otherwise, after two or three months of intake, the membrane protecting the child's brain starts decaying: he starts losing memory, forgets what he was taught in school, his speech and movements are slowed down. After using these substances for a year-and-a-half or two years, children die of poisoning."
The exhibition is not for the faint-hearted. Visitors are shown a dozen jars of formalin containing damaged internal organs of drug addicts and a deformed baby born to a drug-using mother.
Visitors Faint Or Burst Into Tears
Smirnov delivers the final blow with a video illustrating severe drug-related skin diseases found on the limbs of homeless addicts. He says visitors regularly faint or burst into tears.
Georgii, a man in his mid-20s who recently visited the exhibition, came out visibly shaken.
"I am in a kind of trance, especially after the video we had to watch. I can't find words, I can't think straight. This hasn't happened to me for a long time, I just can't find the words. It is horrible, but at the same it is useful, such exhibitions are needed. Children are unlikely to want to take drugs after visiting this exhibition," Georgii says.
Aleksandr Baikov manages the exhibition in the Moscow region.
Total Rejection Of Drugs
He, too, is confident that "On the Brink" is a potent way of keeping children off drugs and other dangerous substances. He proudly displays an award from the Education Ministry describing it as "the most efficient form of early prevention of drug addiction."
Baikov says the exhibition, which is shown to children as young as seven, aims at deterring youths from ever trying drugs.
"We have only one aim and task: create a total rejection of even a first-time use of any narcotic substance, because there is no such thing as a safe drug," Baikov says. "The term 'light' and 'hard' drug should be forbidden. There are concentrated narcotic substances, there are some that are less concentrated, but not a single one of them is safe. If we don't fight [drug addiction], we will most likely lose generation after generation."
Estimates of the number of drug addicts in Russia vary wildly.
Explosion Of Drug Use
While Russia has some 343,000 registered injecting drug users, a United Nations report on AIDS released earlier this month said that the actual number could be four to 10 times as high.
Yevgeniya Koshkina, the chief epidemiologist at the Russian Health Ministry's Drug Research Institute, puts the number of drug addicts in the country at over 1.7 million.
Drug use exploded in Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, but Koshkina told RFE/RL that drug consumption -- including among children -- has been stable over the past four years and, in the case of heroin, has even fallen.
Gulnara Dovlyatova, a doctor and psychologist at a Moscow clinic treating anonymous child addicts, disagrees.
"If heroin addiction drops sharply, this does not mean that drug addiction is starting to decline. In my area, for instance, I can say that the flow of heroin has increased this summer," Dovlyatova says. "Over the past six months, the age group has been getting younger, the use of domestic chemical substances and glue is growing. Before, it was teenagers aged 14 or 15 who did this, but now it is 10 or 11 year-old children."
Speaking at a conference on drugs this week, Moscow's first deputy mayor, Lyubov Shvetsova, said the city was tightening control over traditional drug dealer hangouts such as night clubs.
But Dovlyatova says this will do little to stem juvenile addiction unless free-of-charge activities are set up by the government to keep children active and off the street.
Dovlyatova says 40 percent of the cases she treats are children who drifted into drug and substance abuse mainly because their parents were too busy working to spend any time with them.
The United Nations has issued its annual report on the AIDS epidemic. Here are some of its findings:
- There are currently an estimated 40.3 million people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Of those, 17.5 million are women and 2.3 million are children under the age of 15.
- There were an estimated 4.9 million new HIV infections in 2005, including 700,000 children under the age of 15.
- An estimated 3.1 million people, including 570,000 children, died of AIDS in 2005.
- According to the report, more than 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide since the disease was recognized in 1981.
- In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the number of HIV-positive people reached 1.6 million in 2005, up from 1.2 million in 2003. The bulk of people living with HIV in the region are in the Russian Federation and Ukraine. "Ukraine's epidemic continues to grow, with more new HIV infections occurring each year, while the Russian Federation has the biggest AIDS epidemic in all of Europe," the report states. A private Russian survey cited in the report found "no postive changes in sexual behaviour, with condom use decreasing slightly among people in their twenties."
- In Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have seen the most dramatic increases of HIV infections. In the Caucasus, the situation is described "relatively stable."
Central Asia: AIDS Project Seeks To Avert Epidemic
Eastern Europe: European Commission Warns Of 'Resurgent' HIV/AIDS Epidemic
Listen to a short interview by RFE/RL's Tajik Service with Gregory Henning Mikkelsen, director of EU team for a joint EU/UN AIDS initiative. In the November 21, 2005, interview, Mikkelsen describes the epidemic in Central Asia.Real Audio Windows Media