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The East: AIDS And Veneral Diseases Threaten Health

Prague, 18 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - Organizers of the tenth World AIDS Day on December 1, 1997, hope to challenge people around the world to note the long-term repercussions of the AIDS epidimic without losing sight that AIDS affects everyone.

The long-term repercussions are now beginning to be felt in places such as Russia, which, world health officials say, is in the grip of a "sex-and-drug revolution," that has sent venereal diseases off the chart and threatens a true AIDS epidemic.

Interfax news agency has recently quoted an AIDS prevention group in Moscow as saying that there has been a ten-fold increase in new cases in the first ten months of this year (3,625 new HIV-positive cases) compared with 1996. The Russian Institute for Preventing and Combating AIDS added that unless urgent measures are taken, there will be 5 million HIV-positive Russians by the year 2000.

According to UNAIDS, more than three-quarters of the HIV cases in Russia involve drug users, a group whose numbers have soared with the opening of long-sealed borders and an influx of drugs, especially from Central Asia.

Sexually transmitted diseases are also rising dramatically among the republics of the former Soviet Union, indicating a rise in "unsafe sex." For example, health officials quote recent statistics as showing that in just one year the incidence of syphylis more than doubled in Russia and quadrupled in Kazakhstan.

About half the HIV cases in Russia have been reported in Kaliningrad, a small patch of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. With a busy port and easy access to the rest of Europe, Kaliningrad has been exposed to the HIV virus and AIDS in ways that the rest of Russia has not.

But that is not to say, according to leading health officials, that Russia can afford to turn a blind eye.

Earlier this year, Russian health officials launched the nation's first campaign to stop the spread of AIDS. With its health care system in rapid decline and most patients unable to afford the expensive drug treatments used to treat HIV/AIDS, government officials say prevention must be the country's main line of defense. Teaming up with the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, the government began a media campaign urging condom use and other safe sex practices. But Alexander Goliusov, head of the ministry of health's AIDS prevention department, said the distance between knowledge and real behavioral change can be "very great."

According to a recent survey by an international condom manufacturer based in London, Russians are what the survey called "hostile" to the notion of prophylactics and ranked 12th out of 15 countries in how often they used them. This, despite reports that Russia might be the second most sexually active nation after the United States.

Infection rates are also skyrocketing in Central and Eastern Europe, regions seriously handicapped in their ability to respond to public health disasters. In one Ukrainian city, the percentage of HIV-infected intraveneous drug users was reported to have jumped from nearly two percent to 56.5 percent in just 11 months.

And in Belarus, every 15th resident in the small southern town of Svetlogorsk -- population 75,000 -- is reported infected with HIV. Residents there are calling it "our second Chornobyl."

New HIV epidemics are also emerging in Asia. In Africa, where the epidemic first emerged, civil strife and mass migrations threaten to expand infection rates of the deadly virus.

Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS Geneva, says that taken alone or together, these statistics show future efforts should focus on prevention, education efforts, new forms of protection and the development of a vaccine.

Piot says now, more than ever, there is real hope of one day controlling the AIDS epidemic. But, he says, this requires a new and concerted commitment of resources and will by citizens, public organizations and governments throughout the world.