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Eastern Europe/Former U.S.S.R.: HIV Infections Soaring

London, 29 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The AIDS and HIV epidemic is continuing to spread at an "alarming" rate in many countries, including those of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, says Peter Piot, head of the United Nations AIDS program.

At a London news conference marking the 9th World AIDS Day on Sunday, Piot said there has been a sharp rise in the number of people infected by HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS, in previously unaffected areas of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. In these countries, infection rates are "skyrocketing," he said.

He said in one city in Ukraine, the percentage of HIV-infected intravenous drug users has jumped from under two percent to more than 56 percent in just 11 months

Piot suggested the HIV epidemic in the Eastern countries could get worse, pointing out that sexually-transmitted disease cases are "rising dramatically" in the former Soviet republics, indicating an increase in unsafe, unprotected sex. In one year, syphilis cases have more than doubled in Russia, and they've risen four times in Kazakhstan. He said the Eastern countries are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS because they are "handicapped in their ability to respond to public health disasters."

Piot noted that there is a growing optimism in some quarters about new effective treatments for AIDS, with recent headlines foretelling the day "when AIDS ends."

"But AIDS is not over," he said. "On the contrary, in all likelihood, the darkest days of the epidemic lie ahead of us."

He said difficult questions remain about the long-term effectiveness of new therapies. Moreover, he said "for the vast majority of people with HIV/AIDS, access to these new treatments is not even a dream."

Every day across the world, 8,500 people are being infected, said Piot. Some 3.1 million have been infected this year, bringing the total number estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS to 22.6 million.

Since the illness was recognized in the early 1980s, 6.4 million sufferers have died. Nearly a quarter of deaths were this year.

"The HIV epidemic is far from over," said Piot. "It is gaining momentum in many countries and continues to strengthen its grip on the world's most vulnerable populations."

He said AIDS is no longer a disease only affecting men -- 50 percent of all new HIV infections are occurring among women.

The majority of the 2.7 million adults infected in the past year were under 25. There were 400,000 new infections among children in 1996, bringing the total number living with HIV to more than 800,000.

He said new HIV epidemics are emerging in Asia. The Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine estimates a 10-fold increase in HIV infection between 1993 and 1995. In Vietnam, HIV rates among sex workers have gone up by four times in recent years.

The highest HIV/AIDS infection rates are in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 14 million people are carrying the virus. Piot said "civil strife and mass migrations threaten to expand HIV rates."

Piot says new drug treatments requiring 25 costly pills a day are too expensive to become available to most people with HIV, while mass education programs will never stamp out the disease. He said the best way ahead is to develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine. But, presently, only one percent of all AIDS research money goes to vaccine research.