Ukraine and Russia have seen a sharp increase in the number of people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. A new study released by the United Nations says the growing problem of intravenous drug use in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union puts the whole region at risk of seeing the rate of AIDS cases rise. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 28 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A new report by the UN Program on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, estimates that the number of people living with the virus in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has more than doubled in the past three years.
HIV-positive people in the region now number 420,000, up from an estimated 170,000 cases three years ago. The prevalence of AIDS in the region remains low, especially in comparison with devastating spread of the virus in Africa. But UN health experts say they are worried by the link between the dramatic spread of AIDS and the rising use of intravenous drugs in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
The UNAIDS report, released late Tuesday, said Ukraine has the largest number of infections in the region. The country, which estimated 110,000 people with the virus in 1997, had an estimated 240,000 cases by the end of 1999. And the prevalence of adults with the human immunodeficiency virus is 1 percent, the highest in the region.
In neighboring Belarus, UNAIDS is touting the success of a program that provides clean syringes and condoms along with education about safe injecting. The report said the program, started in Svetologorsk about two years ago, has prevented more than 2,000 cases of HIV infection.
But UN experts say the intravenous drug epidemic poses a threat that AIDS will spread throughout the region. Bernhard Schwartlander is a senior epidemiologist with UNAIDS. He says Belarus, with an estimated 14,000 cases of HIV infection, has been lucky so far.
"I don't think Belarus can be seen as a model at all. I think it's pure luck that they haven't been hit worse than we've seen right now. It is actually typical of the epidemics in Eastern Europe which are sort of, you know, spreading like bush fires. It's not the uniform spread of HIV throughout one uniform population. "
In many countries outside of Africa, the HIV virus is spread primarily among people who inject drugs. The UNAIDS report released Tuesday said that in countries such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine, more than half of all AIDS cases are linked to the use of injecting drugs. And more than two-fifths of the cases in Iran are spread this way.
Scientists say injection is a more efficient way of spreading HIV than sexual intercourse. And HIV can spread rapidly among drug users because they are often linked in tight networks and regularly share injecting equipment with other people without cleaning it.
UN officials say it is difficult to get a precise count of people infected this way because drug use is illegal. The UNAIDS report based its estimates on drug users who were arrested or registered at treatment centers.
Schwartlander, the UNAIDS official, says a pattern has emerged in the region in which outbreaks of HIV infections emerge in populations of drug users. This happens even in cities that had little or no incidence of the virus previously.
"In a sense, it could happen tomorrow to Belarus or the other countries. In all of these countries we do see a substantial increase in drug use behavior and all of these populations are highly vulnerable to HIV spread."
He said the most dramatic example last year was in the Moscow city and region. Three times more HIV cases -- 7,000 -- were reported there in 1999 than in all previous years combined in all of Russia. Overall, about 130,000 Russians (up from 40,000 in 1997) are believed to be infected with HIV, and that could rise considerably. Recent estimates show the number of intravenous drug users in Russia ranges between 1 million and 2.5 million.
The broader dangers posed by the AIDS epidemic can be seen in Africa, where there are now 16 countries in which more than one-tenth of the adult population carries the AIDS virus. UN officials say the disease is decimating a whole professional class, with repercussions in the health care and education fields in particular.
The executive director of UNAIDS is Peter Piot. He told reporters on Tuesday that the full impact of AIDS is still to be seen.
"I believe that we're only at the beginning of the actual impact on society of AIDS, and there are examples in agriculture, in business, the health sector and so on where professionals are dying of AIDS. All this makes us say that AIDS is really now a development crisis, which is very obvious for those who have been in the countries that are most affected."
Piot said there must be a massive increase in political will and financial resources at the international level to treat AIDS and prevent its spread.
Information in the new report was compiled by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization with the assistance of nations AIDS programs and in cooperation with other international experts and institutions.