Prague, 31 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Global experts and doctors working in Russia have long complained that when it came to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Kremlin was living in denial.
But yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov finally broke the government's silence, telling an international conference in Moscow that the AIDS epidemic in Russia has gone beyond a medical problem and is now a threat to the country's national security.
Official statistics tell the story. In 1998, the number of HIV cases registered in Russia stood at 11,000. According to the Russian Health Ministry, the number of cases has now mushroomed to more than 300,000. That's a 30-fold increase in seven years.
Of course, those are the official numbers. According to unofficial estimates, which many experts believe are closer to the truth, the actual number of HIV sufferers in Russia is closer to 1.5 million -- 1 percent of the population.
Yelena Tamazova heads the Moscow office of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. She tells RFE/RL the situation is so serious that it has finally forced the government to acknowledge the problem. But she believes an even larger epidemic can still be avoided.
"According to official statistics, the number of people living with the HIV virus in Russia, in March 2005, was 314,000. But all Russian and international experts believe this number should be multiplied by five, at a minimum. This is not a secret, and that is why the government is now paying attention to this problem, because it can no longer be ignored." --Yelena Tamazova, Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS
"According to official statistics, the number of people living with the HIV virus in Russia, in March 2005, was 314,000," she says. "But all Russian and international experts believe this number should be multiplied by five, at a minimum. This is not a secret, and that is why the government is now paying attention to this problem, because it can no longer be ignored. We still have a window of opportunity which will allow us to avoid an epidemic if we take the right preventive measures. Because the problem so far in Russia is relatively young."
But that window could be closing fast. Since the growth of the HIV epidemic is exponential, doctors fear that if major steps are not taken now to educate people about how to protect themselves from the disease, Russia could soon be in the position of some African countries, where 20 to 30 percent of the population has HIV.
In countries whose governments have made a priority of slowing HIV -- by ensuring intravenous drug addicts do not share dirty needles, and young people are educated about risky sexual practices and have access to condoms -- the epidemic has been tamed.
HIV affects a disproportionately high number of young people in Russia -- 80 percent of sufferers are under the age of 30. The implications for the country's economy if the trend is not stopped could be enormous. But Tamazova says Zhukov's words represent a breakthrough, and she is encouraged.
"Yesterday was the first time that such words were uttered by someone as senior as the deputy prime minister," she says. "This indicates that there is the political will and that the Russian government has begun to pay serious attention to HIV/AIDS. This is very welcome."
Yesterday's conference in Moscow brought together medical specialists, government representatives, and business leaders. They discussed how they can work in partnership to tackle the problem.
"We discussed the more active participation of business in programs to combat HIV," Tamazova says. "There is a whole range of possible programs, including the distribution of medicine at workplaces, participation in philanthropic projects. There can be many ways to cooperate. But the main goal is to create a partnership between the state and business on this issue and a partnership between business and civil society."
As evidence of the Russian government's new determination to tackle the issue, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov said at the conference that the ministry has struck a deal with international pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost of drugs to treat HIV/AIDS.
Zurabov said the agreement will enable Russian patients to be treated at one-seventh the cost of current medications, allowing doctors to help many more sufferers.