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East: Eastern Europe Could Emerge As Next Aids Epicenter

Prague, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Every 60 seconds worldwide, five young people -- aged ten to 24 -- are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

That is the finding of a new report released recently by the joint United Nations program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The report also notes that Eastern Europe has emerged as a particular troublespot for AIDS -- Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome -- for which there is no known cure.

Peter Piot, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, says HIV infection rates across Eastern Europe have risen at least six-fold in the last four years, and as much as 70-fold in the worst affected areas. Piot called it a "warning sign" of a potential major outbreak of HIV in the region and he urged officials and citizens alike to quickly expand action to combat HIV in Eastern Europe.

Until the mid 1990's, Eastern Europe appeared to have been spared the worst of the epidemic, with only 30,000 infections estimated in the entire region in 1994. At that time, by comparison, Western Europe had more than 15 times that number and sub-Saharan Africa 400 times as many people infected with the virus.

The pattern, however, changed in mid-90s when the number of drug users began to increase among young people in Eastern Europe. By the end of last year, an estimated 190,000 people in the region were living with HIV -- a six-fold increase, according to UNAIDS.

Gianai Murzi, a UNICEF Representative in Moscow, says intravenal drug usage and unsafe sex are fueling the crisis, especially in Russia. UNAIDS officials also point to the dramatic rise in new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in Eastern Europe as a warning sign of a major increase in HIV, spread through the exchange of infected blood or bodily fluids.

Ukraine is currently considered the worst affected country in the region, with nearly four times as many HIV infections today as there were in the entire Eastern European region just three years ago. Most cases stem from drug use.

In 1996, there were 51,681 drug users registered at Ukraine's Narcology Dispensaries of the Ministry of Health. But a background paper released to RFE/RL by UNAIDS in Kyiv estimates the actual number could be ten times higher, approaching 650,000. Of these, an estimated 85 percent are intravenous drug users and, as such, are at a very high risk of infection.

According to UNAIDS Kyiv, if the worst case scenario does develop and an affordable cure is not developed, Ukraine may face 1.8 million cumulative deaths from AIDS by 2016. Children orphaned through AIDS will also increase demands on the welfare system, with anywhere from 100-300,000 orphans estimated in the same time frame.

Across the region, UNAIDS says young people, especially children, still carry the heaviest burden of new infections. It reports key findings on HIV infection in young adults:

* More than half of all new HIV infections acquired after infancy occur among young people.

* Of the 30 million persons living with HIV, at least one-third are young people.

* Every day, 7000 young people worldwide acquire the virus. That translates into five young people every minute or 2.6 million infections each year.

* By the year 2020, there will be over 40 million orphans under the age of 15 in the 23 countries most affected by HIV. Most of these children will have lost their parents to AIDS.

In releasing its report, UNAIDS pledged to work throughout the year to increase the participation of young people in efforts to reduce the spread of HIV, including training and mobilizing young people to educate their peers and friends. The campaign, "Force for Change: World AIDS Campaign with Young People," also seeks to protect the human rights of young people as an essential element of all efforts to prevent the spread of HIV. Without concerted public and private action, UNAIDS says the young people of today could become the AIDS statistics of tomorrow.