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Russia: Kaliningrad Leads In HIV Exposure, AIDS Awareness

Kaliningrad, 31 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia's enclave on the Baltic Sea, has developed a reputation as Russia's AIDS capital.

With a population of 900,000, the province has 2,094 officially registered cases of HIV -- people who have been infected by the human immunodeficiency virus but who have not necessarily developed any symptoms of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). While this figure pales against levels in major European and American cities, it accounts for over half of Russia's 4,000 officially registered HIV cases. Some doctors and activists say the incidence of HIV actually is far higher.

Of the official HIV cases, about 10 have developed into symptomatic AIDS disease. AIDS symptoms often don't develop until months and even years after HIV exposure.

Nevertheless, the Kaliningrad numbers have sparked anxiety in Russia. From 1988 to 1995, the enclave registered 21 HIV-positives; in 1996, 607 new cases; and in 1997, 1330 cases.

For now, the rate of increase of the virus in Kaliningrad has stabilized. About 20 new HIV cases are registered each month. Doctors and drug addicts say a major factor in the HIV spread is intravenous drug use among addicts who mix their own blood into heroin in order to bring out impurities while preparing injections. Sharing of contaminated needles by drug users is a common vehicle for HIV transmission worldwide. Kaliningrad health officials say the proportion of sexually-transmitted HIV cases is rising.

Oleg Mamot, chief doctor of the region's AIDS Center, says HIV exposure has not spread as rapidly as health officials feared a year ago that it would. He says part of the reason is an information campaign undertaken by the center.

Elena Demchenko, head of the Kaliningrad AIDS Center's Information and Psychological Services Department, told RFE/RL in an interview, in her words: "Unlike elsewhere in Russia, there is a very high-level of awareness of the problem here. We are active in schools and in the mass media promoting awareness about the problem."