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Belarus: A Small Town Suffers High HIV Infection Rate

London, 18 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A medium-sized town in Belarus is suffering the most serious HIV epidemic of any place in the former Soviet Union because of its large number of drug addicts sharing contaminated needles and syringes to inject themselves.

The World Health Organization reports that 800 new cases of HIV infection have been identified this year in the town of Svetlogorsk. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is believed to be the cause of AIDS. Alexander Gromyko, the WHO's regional adviser on HIV/Aids, told RFE/RL yesterday: "This is an extremely high incidence."

One in 90 of Svetlogorsk's population of 72,000 has been identified as carrying the HIV virus. This has been called the highest incidence of infection in the world but Gromyko said this is not "appropriate" since HIV is not a notifiable condition in many European countries.

Svetlogorsk is a "garden city" built in the 1960s that attracted labor from across the Soviet Union. Its average age is unusually young: only 30. It has a large number of addicts: some 5,000, according to doctors.

Earlier this year, posters were put all over the town saying "AIDS won't get us." But it already has. The HIV epidemic started four months ago among young people who experimented with hard drugs to alleviate their boredom in a place of high unemployment and few diversions.

The epidemic spread like wildfire because the young addicts shared hypodermic needles and syringes with other users. This is high risk behavior, as HIV is spread by the exchange of bodily fluids. At the beginning of July the town had registered 602 cases of new HIV infections. That figure has climbed to 800 in just three months.

Svyatoslav Samoshkin, deputy chief doctor of the regional hospital, was quoted by the London newspaper "The Guardian" as saying: "We're not trying to hide things, there's no cover-up here. Every week we issue the latest figures and we appeal to everyone and to any foreign organization to please help us."

Svetlogorsk's authorities lack the money to buy disposable syringes. By one estimate, the town needs supplies of 1,000 syringes a week. Officials have flooded the town with leaflets telling addicts how to clean their syringes, but this has had little effect.

Valery Glazovsky, director of the Belarus State Aids Prevention Center, said: "Half the time these kids are just out of it. They're not in control of themselves. Homosexuals and professional prostitutes think about their health, but these addicts just live for the next fix."

Misha, 18, was recently diagnosed as HIV-positive. He had mouth ulcers and swollen glands and, when he met a reporter from London newspaper, he smiled as if embarrassed rather than shocked.

He started injecting himself with an opiate solution last February out of curiosity.

"No one forced me to do it. On the contrary, the drug addicts said 'Don't do it.' But I wanted to see what it was like." He said: "I only did it for a month and half and now I've got this."

Misha said: "I knew it was stupid, but when you get the idea into your head to have a fix, your brain can't stop you, you run all over town to get high."

He said Svetlogorsk's addicts are in a state of panic. Some have taken tests to see if they are HIV-positive, but, according to Misha, "Many are just going back to their old ways".

Gromyko, of the WHO, said that until this year, Belarus had diagnosed only 100 cases of HIV infection. But that figure has multiplied by a factor of eight in a few months, and all on account of one small town.