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The East: AIDS Epidemic Is Spreading Rapidly

London, 2 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) says there has been a very rapid rise of new cases of HIV infection in the East and Central European countries and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.

Jo Avsall, WHO regional director for Europe, said in a statement today: "Eastern Europe is now in the forefront of the AIDS epidemic."

Avsall said the number of new cases of infection by HIV in the eastern countries this year amounts to an estimated 100,000 -- a twofold increase compared with all previous years.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Avsall also said, while the number of new AIDS cases in western Europe has dropped by 10 percent, there has been a "very rapid rise" of new cases in the countries of the former Soviet Union. He said this epidemic "demands urgent attention."

Avsall said that narcotics abuse accounted for the "dramatic surge" in HIV infection in several Eastern countries, and accounted for the majority of the estimated 100,000 new infections in 1997.

In Ukraine, were about 70 percent of infections have been in drug users over the last three years, some 25,000 cases of HIV infection have been reported so far, half of them in 1997.

The WHO statement said a similar pattern may possibly be seen elsewhere in the eastern part of the European region. Officials in the Russian Federation estimate that there about 350,000 regular drug users in the country, many of them sharing injecting equipment.

Aids is caused by the transfer of infected bodily fluids from one person to another through unprotected sexual intercourse or the shared use of needles and syringes by drug abusers.

The WHO report says "alarming rises of sexually transmitted diseases in Eastern Europe point to the potential for a much wider sexual spread of HIV, affecting larger parts of the population."

The reports says: "In Belarus, the republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation, new cases of syphilis rocketed from very low levels in the 1980s to well above two per 1,000 population by 1996, more than 100 times higher than rates in western Europe, with continuously increasing trends."

It says: "Slightly lower, but still alarmingly high and growing rates are observed in most of the newly independent states."

The report says: "Sexually transmitted disease makes HIV (when present) spread much more easily from one partner to the other. It is also an important marker of potential HIV spread because it has the same transmission route -- unprotected sex."

The report says the growing gap between the eastern and western parts of Europe reflects not only the scale of HIV spread, but also different standards in the access to medical treatment.

The report says in western Europe, newly available antiretroviral drugs are reducing the speed at which HIV-infected people develop AIDS. But the report adds: "For the vast majority of people living with HIV/AIDS in eastern Europe, this costly treatment is still out of reach."

Professor Sieghart Dittmann, coordinator of the Communicable Diseases Program at the WHO's regional office for Europe in Copenhagen, said that Professor Sieghart Dittmann, coordinator of the Communicable Diseases Program at the WHO's regional office for Europe in Copenhagen, "Governments in the turbulence of economic and social hardship lost sight of the AIDS problem, failing to mount effective programs, allocate resources and effect necessary legislative changes."

He said: "Our challenge now is to bridge the growing gap between the eastern and western parts of the region, and do it quickly."

The WHO report says, worldwide, one in every 100 adults in the sexually active ages of 15 to 49 is infected with HIV. It estimates that over 30 million people are living with HIV infection, and that 16,000 new infections occur daily. The overwhelming majority of HIV-infected people -- more than 90 percent -- live in the developing world, and most do not know they are infected.