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Russia: HIV Strikes Hard At Young Women, Children

Tamara with Svetlana (RFE/RL) When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many Russians had never even heard of HIV or AIDS. Almost 15 years later, low public awareness and a lack of political will to stem the spread of the virus have left Russia with the biggest HIV/AIDS epidemic in Europe, according to a new UN report. Russian authorities are starting to publicly acknowledge the extent of the crisis and take action to fight the epidemic, which is rapidly spreading among children. But sufferers and their families say much needs to be done to overcome the intense stigma and discrimination associated with the disease.

Moscow, 22 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Tamara Manannikova rarely feels welcome anywhere in her native Kaliningrad since she adopted Svetlana, a three-year-old girl with HIV.

Tamara's family has shunned contact with them. Svetlana is banned from kindergartens and playgrounds.

When she adopted Svetlana, who was abandoned by her HIV-positive mother in a hospital, Tamara did not expect the level of hostility she has encountered.

She said discrimination towards her daughter is rife even among health workers.

"Last year we tried to undergo a neurological examination here in Moscow, but we were refused only because the child is infected," Manannikova said. "Once, a speech therapist came to see us wearing a mask and gloves -- only a protective suit was missing. I would very much like to call on our government to somehow carry out prevention work. Very little is being done."

Late Starters

Svetlana's story is sadly common in Russia.

HIV arrived late in Russia, largely due to the country's relative isolation during the Soviet period. The first case was reported in 1987.

Today, over 330,000 people in Russia have been diagnosed with the virus, although some estimates put the number of HIV sufferers at 1.5 million -- about 2 percent of the adult population. According to a 21 November United Nations report, less than 10 percent of people with HIV are receiving anti-retroviral therapy.

Experts say that the Russian government's reluctance to address sex-related issues -- a tendency inherited from the Soviet past -- has contributed to the rapid spread of HIV. By 2001, according to UNICEF, the UN's children's fund, the country already had one of the fastest-growing infection rates in the world.

The lack of public dialogue, together with the disease's popular association with drug users, has helped foster deeply ingrained misconceptions and prejudices about HIV/AIDS.

The epidemic was largely fuelled by the explosion of intravenous drug use in the mid-1990s. Now, the virus has entered wider sections of the population, mainly through sexual transmission. In recent years, the number of young women and children living with the virus has soared.

Children At Risk

According to the UN report on HIV/AIDS, 20 babies are born to HIV-positive mothers every day in Russia. In some regions, over 1 percent of pregnant women have HIV. Of the 21,000 babies born to infected mothers since the start of the epidemic, 1,500 have been abandoned.

Experts say the severe stigma and discrimination HIV sufferers face in Russia is particularly damaging in the case of children.

Carel de Rooy is the Russia representative for UNICEF. He says HIV is threatening to rob children not only of their health, but also of their education.

"There has been a survey undertaken by UNICEF in 2004 in 10 of the 89 regions of the Russian Federation to look at the attitude of the state, of institutions, vis-a-vis children with HIV and we found that not a single child with HIV has been accepted into a kindergarten, into school basically," de Rooy said. "That in itself is already a very clear signal that the attitudes are horrendous, are terrible right now and that a lot of work has to be done."

Health experts have long warned of an impending HIV/AIDS catastrophe, but have said that the Russian government has been slow to react to the epidemic.

Russia's federal budget in 2005 allocated a mere 4.5 million dollars for HIV monitoring, prevention, treatment, and research.

There are signs, however, that the authorities are waking up to the crisis. In September, President Vladimir Putin called for a 20-fold increase in HIV/AIDS spending.

High-ranking officials have also started to admit openly Russia's shortcomings in dealing with the epidemic.

Speaking to reporters in early November, Deputy Health Minister Vladimir Starodubov called AIDS a "national priority" and acknowledged that Russia had done too little to fight the disease.

"All these figures are forcing us to take certain measures, and what we have done so far is clearly not enough. Problems connected with the treatment of patients, with the prevention of the disease, with the diagnosis, problems connected with organizing the life of these children, are very acute in the Russian Federation. The programs that we've carried out so far have proved clearly insufficient," Starodubov said.

Starodubov said the government has set itself the task of providing treatment for up to 15,000 HIV sufferers by the end of next year. Russia also plans a widespread campaign to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, including programs to inform medical students and physicians about the disease.

Some 7,500 people have died of AIDS in Russia so far. Experts say the number of deaths is likely to increase dramatically as the people who contracted the virus -- which takes on average 10 to 12 years to become fatal -- in the mid-1990s will start dying of AIDS.



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."

See also:

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.
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