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Russia: AIDS Epidemic Threatens Hundreds Of Thousands

In the past year, the number of registered cases of HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- has doubled in Russia, a sudden surge in an epidemic that hit the country later than elsewhere in Europe. This week, in advance of the annual World AIDS Day (1 December), the country's top health officials are calling for more financial aid and more prevention-oriented efforts. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 28 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia today has only 418 registered cases of AIDS, with some 700 people known to have died from the usually fatal disease in the past. But the country's health authorities are warning that hundreds of thousands may already be infected with HIV -- the virus that triggers AIDS -- and that more people will be infected in the next few years when the epidemic shifts from intravenous drug users to the general population.

Russia' Health Ministry classified HIV as an "epidemic" earlier this year. Two months ago, a United Nations representative in Moscow, Philippe Elghouayel, said that Russia now has the highest HIV infection rate in the world.

Russia currently has about 70,000 registered HIV cases -- a number that has doubled over the past year -- of which almost all are intravenous drug users. The UN's World Health Organization estimates Russia's non-diagnosed HIV cases at about 130,000. But Vadim Pokrovsky, Russia's top AIDS specialist, says that the real number of HIV cases could be between 300,000 and 400,000. A similar figure was cited by the director of the UN's UNAIDS department, Peter Piot, during a trip to Moscow earlier this month.

At a Moscow press conference today, Aleksandr Goliusov, who is charge of combating AIDS at Russia's Health Ministry, acknowledged that the government's earlier efforts had to be overhauled because authorities had not expected an epidemic.

"At the moment, we are finishing work on a new program for the period from 2002 to 2007. The problem is that the old program was adopted in 1996, when the epidemiological situation was different. At the time, we had not yet seen the spread of HIV among drug users that make up 90 percent of all new cases now."

Drug addiction is a widespread problem among Russian youth, who consume anything from heroin to cheap pharmacy mixes costing about one dollar. Heroin addiction is relatively common, with some cases even having turned up in some of Moscow's elite scientific institutes.

Pokrovsky and Goliusov agree that future AIDS prevention should target the population at large in order to hold back the spread of the disease from intravenous drug users to transmission through heterosexual relations. The rate of sexually transmitted diseases in Russia has increased dramatically over the past 10 years, indicating that a similar evolution of HIV could occur.

Pokrovsky told today's press conference that Russia, like many African countries, cannot afford the $1,000 monthly cost of HIV therapies available to the fortunate few in the West. He says it must therefore concentrate on prevention policies, taking advantage of an educated population that watches television and reads the newspapers to get its message across.

But Pokrovsky notes that, as in some other countries, a battle is going on in Russia between a conservative lobby and what he calls a "democratic" one. He says the conservatives -- influenced by religious or communist values -- are against full sex education in the schools. The "democrats," he says, believe children should be taught to take into account that many people have several sexual partners in the course of their lives -- and are therefore more at risk of contracting the disease.

"We can clearly see this battle inside the Education Ministry, where there is still no state policy on sex education in schools. One proposed program earlier was criticized and rejected for allegedly pressing open and free sexual behavior on children."

But Russia's Health Ministry insists that the main problem is simply lack of money. Officials note that the anti-AIDS program set up four years ago only began receiving financing last year. And this year, less that $1.5 million, or 20 percent of the sum allocated, was actually paid out to the ministry. Most of it has gone to buying and distributing prevention kits.

The government points out that it helps through other forms of support. Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, combating AIDS receive free time on state television. And Moscow's city council allows free advertisement space for prevention ads.

In addition, Russia also receives financial aid from abroad. In addition to help from international NGOs, the UN's anti-AIDS program has contributed about $750,000 this year, and the World Bank recently offered Russia a $150-million loan to help fight the disease.