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World: Russia Part Of 'Next Wave' Of Global AIDS Crisis

As many as 1 million people in Russia may be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And meager health funding and government indifference mean the problem is likely to grow. The number of people in Russia dying from AIDS is still relatively low. But the figures are likely to skyrocket within the next few years. As the globe marks World AIDS Day today, RFE/RL spoke to one health expert, who said that not enough is being done to prevent a full-blown epidemic in Russia.

Prague, 1 December 2004 -- Russia experienced its first wave of HIV infections nearly a decade ago.

So far, the consequences have been relatively mild. Fewer than 5,000 people are reported to have died from AIDS in Russia.

But that is about to change.

"I think we will see the first [large] wave of people dying of this disease within two to three years," said Rian van de Braak, executive director of AIDS Foundation East-West, a Dutch nongovernmental organization that is fighting the disease in the former Soviet Union. "Estimations are that the first 100,000 will start dying in 2007. And this is actually the group who started to get infected in '96 and '97."

Van de Braak's organization works closely with the Russian Health and Justice ministries to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in both the general and prison populations.

She said that the Kremlin's response to the looming epidemic has been poor. Russia's current federal budget allots just $5 million a year to fighting HIV/AIDS.
Young men under 30 currently make up two-thirds of Russia's HIV carriers, and the number of infected women in on the rise.

Van de Braak estimated that a comprehensive countrywide AIDS program for Russia would actually cost between $220 million and $250 million.

Recent reports by the World Health Organization and the United Nations AIDS agency cite Russia -- along with India and China -- as forming the next wave of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

This could mean tens of millions of new infections. The head of UNAIDS, Peter Piot, yesterday compared the disease to nuclear terrorism in terms of its threat to global security.

He also stressed the risk of what he called a "rampant AIDS epidemic" along the European Union's eastern borders.

Van de Braak said she hopes the rise in international attention means more will be done to curb HIV/AIDS in Russia and elsewhere.

But without a major shift in Russia's AIDS policy, the number of infections will continue to rise. Van de Braak estimated that as many as 4 million young Russians will be infected with HIV over the next several years.

Until now, many Russians have looked at HIV/AIDS as a problem affecting only drug users and homosexuals. But Van de Braak said that the disease in Russia is following a trend being witnessed worldwide -- the spread through sexual contact to the general population, and most notably to women.

"Over the last years, we definitely saw an increase among Russian women being infected. At the same time, I think this coincides with the trend that the epidemic is moving out of the scene of injecting drug users into the general population," van de Braak said. "A couple of years ago, more than 90 to 95 percent of those infected had an injecting drug user's past. At this moment, this figure has gone down to 60 to 65 percent. So we see a move into the general population through sexual contact, and among them there are also more women."

Young men under 30 currently make up two-thirds of the country's HIV carriers. The World Bank has warned that the Russian economy will suffer a major blow as the epidemic begins to affect the country's labor force.