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Russia: 'Miss Positive' Puts Public Face On Battle With HIV/AIDS

Svetlana Izambayeva (AFP) MOSCOW, May 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Last year, Svetlana Izambayeva became the first person to hold an unusual Russian title: Miss Positive. Izambayeva is HIV-positive, and the contest she won was widely seen as a rare instance of Russia attempting to highlight, rather than cover up, the country's growing problem with HIV/AIDS.

When Izambayeva, a 25-year-old hairdresser, was diagnosed with HIV in 2002 after a seaside love affair, her first reaction was disbelief.
"Thanks to the fact that I started talking about it openly, I felt
there were thousands of HIV-positive people behind me, for whom I bore
responsibility and for whom I can continue to speak,"

"I thought this could not affect me," she says. "I told myself: 'No, this is not true. This is impossible.' After coming to my senses, I asked myself for a long time: 'Why? What for? How could this happen? This can't be true.'"

Destroying Stereotypes

Izambayeva's reaction was a sign of how low awareness of HIV/AIDS issues still is in Russia.

At the start of the HIV epidemic in Russia, drug use was responsible for more than 90 percent of infections. But the virus is quickly moving into the mainstream population through sexual contact.

A lack of public debate in Russia on HIV/AIDS, however, has sustained the belief that HIV is confined to marginal groups such as drug addicts and prostitutes.

Izambayeva, with her newfound fame and her seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm, is determined to change that attitude. Simply showing that a person with HIV can be attractive, she says, goes a long way in fighting social stigma.

"I think that I've destroyed many stereotypes," she says. "Before, people in villages, even in the small village where I grew up, just like me didn't understand that HIV can affect them and their family. By showing people that I smile, that I am happy, that I lead a fully fledged life, I've destroyed the stereotype that an HIV-positive person looks like a tramp lying in dirt, skinny, with swollen bruises under his eyes."

Epidemic Exploding In Russia

Izambayeva was born in 1981 -- the year the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States. Since then, the disease has spread around the world at frightening speed. Some 40 million people worldwide are estimated to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and more than 20 million people have already died due to AIDS.

Russia has one of the world's fastest-growing HIV epidemics. While 330,000 have been officially diagnosed with the virus, many health experts say well over 1 million people could be living with HIV in Russia.

Socially Stigmatized

But few are willing to talk about their infection. Russian society is quick to stigmatize HIV sufferers.

When Izambayeva finally mustered the courage to speak openly about her HIV status, many in her small hometown, some 600 kilometers east of Moscow, chose to reject her. They refused to shake hands with her or drink from the same glass. She lost many hairdressing clients.

"Some continued [to come]. But some didn't even approach me," she says. "They stopped talking to me. They started poking their finger at me and saying: 'She'll scratch your head all over. Don't go to her.' "

She says her mother at first even tried to isolate her from her younger brothers for fear she might infect them.

But Izambayeva has no regrets. On the contrary, campaigning to educate Russians about HIV and AIDS has given new meaning to her life.

"Thanks to the fact that I started talking about it openly, I felt there were thousands of HIV-positive people behind me, for whom I bore responsibility and for whom I can continue to speak," she says. "HIV has made my life better. I've become more confident. I live life more fully. One could say that I've grown."

Like thousands of people around the world, Izambayeva will light candles on May 21 as part of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial. The memorial is a grassroots event started in 1983 as a way to honor AIDS victims -- those who have died and those who are living with the disease. It also aims to educate the public, raise awareness, and decrease the stigma related to HIV/AIDS.

And for those Russians who have yet to meet Izambayeva, a dozen cities across the country will mark the day by showing a slide film telling the story of this unique beauty queen.

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