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Ukraine: HIV Cases Skyrocket While Government Ponders Options

The General Assembly of the United Nations begins today, a three-day special session devoted to the global issue of HIV and AIDS. The session was initiated by Ukraine, one of the European countries worst affected by the HIV epidemic. Lily Hyde reports for RFE/RL from Ukraine on the country's preparations and hopes for the session.

Kyiv, 25 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- From every corner of the world, government leaders, non-government organizations, and people living with HIV are converging in New York for a special three-day UN session dedicated to prevention and treatment of AIDS and HIV.

The proposal for the session was put forward by Ukraine, which has seen an explosive rise in infections since the first case of HIV was registered 14 years ago. There are now over 38,000 registered cases in Ukraine, but the UN AIDS program estimates the real number may be closer to 250,000. The country is at the heart of the most recent and fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the world -- that of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Ukraine's decision to initiate the session is seen as an indication that it recognizes the seriousness of the problem and is ready to take serious steps to fight it. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma last year pronounced HIV a national emergency, and a new national strategy lays down comprehensive plans for prevention, care, and treatment.

Andrej Cima, inter-country adviser for UNAIDS in Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, says he hopes Ukraine will be able to demonstrate its commitment at this week's session:

"The draft national strategy on HIV/AIDS, which has been [in development for more than a year], is about to be adopted. So let us hope Ukraine [will be ready to] bring that document to New York. A program on mother-to-child transmission is also quite advanced, and we understand that Ukraine is willing to make a commitment, in the coming years, [to make sure] all HIV-infected pregnant women and their children will have access to treatment."

The vast majority of HIV cases in Ukraine are among intravenous drug users infected through needle-sharing. But Ukraine also has a high rate of mother-to-child transmission, when HIV-positive women pass on the virus to their children during birth. This can easily be prevented with antiretroviral drugs, but the drugs, which are expensive, are scarce in Ukraine. Antiretroviral treatment, widely used in the West, can also suppress HIV in regular patients to prevent the onset of AIDS.

Alla Scherbynska is the director of the Ukrainian AIDS Center. She says the UN session should have important results for Ukraine, especially in improving access to treatment:

"The Ukrainian delegation expects a lot from this session. First and foremost the session is aimed at developing international efforts and consolidating those efforts in the fight against AIDS, increasing the scale of the struggle, supporting people living with HIV/AIDS, and creating conditions that would make antiretroviral therapy possible."

One positive sign is that Ukraine -- along with several African and South American countries -- has been admitted to the Accelerated Access initiative, a joint program of UN agencies and the five largest pharmaceutical companies which hold the patents on antiretroviral drugs. Under the program, Ukraine can negotiate to receive drugs at sharply discounted prices.

Yevgeny Krivosheyev, a member of the Ukrainian delegation to a preparatory UN session in May, says the UN session is an important opportunity for Ukraine and its neighbors to speak out about the seriousness of the epidemic in the region:

"It's the chance to attract world attention to the situation happening now in Eastern Europe. All discussion of the problem of the spread of AIDS in the world is centered on Africa. From our point of view, Eastern Europe and Ukraine are a hidden Africa. If no action is taken in five, maximum 10, years, we'll have the same situation here. It's still not too late to draw attention to this problem."

Krivosheyev is a member of the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. Two other network members will be among the Ukrainian government delegation present at this week's UN session. Thanks to the insistence of such delegates, the session's final declaration will include a call to all governments to ensure the participation of people living with HIV in drafting future prevention and treatment programs.