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The East: Health Experts Fear New Diseases Replace Old

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 3 July 1998 (RFE/RL) --International health experts fear the spread of a new disease in the former Soviet Union, while an old illness has been nearly eliminated in that region. Those are the stories at the top of this week's health file.

UN Warns of AIDS Explosion in Former Soviet Union

Geneva -- International medical experts say they are very worried about an increasing gap between the most prosperous nations in the world and the so-called developing countries in the struggle to contain the spread of the virus that brings on the fatal disease known as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The experts are particularly worried about conditions in Africa and Asia, and in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union where, researchers contend, public health authorities face an explosion of new infections.

AIDS destroys the body's protective immune systems, leaving it extremely vulnerable to some types of cancer and to deadly infections. There is no cure. AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is spread by contact with infected body fluids. Most often, HIV is spread from person to person through unprotected sexual intercourse or through the sharing of hypodermic needles by drug users. Women infected with HIV can pass the disease to their unborn children. There is no vaccine against HIV, but researchers in the West have made some progress in suppressing the virus in infected persons.

The world's leading experts on HIV and AIDS gathered in Geneva last week for the 12th World AIDS conference. They met under the auspices of the World Health Organization and the United Nations AIDS program to review the state of the disease and map out future strategy.

The conclusion: a lot of treatment progress has been made in Western Europe and North America, but HIV is still ravaging the developing world. There are about 30.6 million infected by HIV worldwide. More than two-thirds of the victims live in sub-Saharan Africa. The UN says there are "few, and in most cases no resources available," in that part of the world.

The UN says: "The scarcity of resources in the non-industrialized world allows the HIV epidemic to continue its spread at an alarming rate." The WHO estimates that 16,000 new infections develop each day

According to the WHO, "Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation appear at high risk for an explosion of new HIV infections." The agency says intravenous drug use and unprotected sex with prostitutes are widespread.

In Ukraine, the WHO says, "the prevalence of HIV infection has risen seven thousand percent in four years, and in the Russian Federation, the number of new infections tripled during the period from 1996 to 1997."

The 12th World AIDS conference also concluded that the developed world will not provide the considerable amount of money needed for drug treatments for the developing world. The conference agreed that there is an urgent need for education and prevention programs in countries where treatment resources are extremely scarce. The UN says helping prevention efforts is the least that prosperous nations can do to bridge the HIV/AIDS gap.

WHO Polio Eradication On Target

Washington -- The WHO says that ten years after the start of its Global Polio Eradication Initiative, reported case numbers have dropped from 35,000 a year to around 4,000. The WHO says polio is now endemic in just 52 of the world's 215 countries that provide reports to the WHO. Polio, also known as infantile paralysis, is caused by a virus. Victims can be left paralyzed for life.

The WHO, a United Nations agency, has set a goal of eradicating polio by the year 2000. A report released last week says great progress has been made toward meeting that goal. The WHO says the success of its program has been especially startling in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union and in the Central Asian region as a whole.

According to the report, the number of confirmed polio cases in the WHO's European Region -- which includes Central Asia -- ranged from 177 to 297. Last year, the WHO says only seven cases were reported from two countries -- Tajikistan and Turkey. However, the WHO warned that Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan remain at risk for polio because of confirmed ongoing polio virus transmission in neighboring Afghanistan.