|RUSSIA AND THE AIDS PROBLEM
MOSCOW. (Marianna Belenkaya, RIA Novosti political commentator)
The question most seriously examined today by the media and pollsters is,
Has Russia’s image changed following the Group of Eight summit? It
probably has, if only thanks to the excellent organization of the meeting
and the leading role played by Russia in the discussions at it.
But this is only for now. Further on, it will depend on smaller things, on
how the decisions adopted in St. Petersburg are carried out. For example,
those dealing with infectious diseases, AIDS included.
This theme was one of the three central subjects discussed in St.
Petersburg, together with energy security and education. And the decisions
taken were far from being merely declarative. Russian President Vladimir
Putin said after the summit that “if the programs now outlined are
carried out, by 2010 drugs will be available to all HIV-infected people
who need them.”
In Russia, the provision of medicines is a vital issue. Drugs are
expensive. Russia’s cooperation with the UNAIDS program has brought down
the cost of one course of antiretroviral treatment from $6,000 to $1,400.
Now that Russia produces some of the medications itself, Health Minister
Mikhail Zurabov has promised that a course of treatment may be as cheap as
Russia’s chief health officer, Gennady Onishchenko, said that according
to government statistics more than 360,000 people are infected with HIV in
Russia today. “Of them 15,000 need treatment. In 2007, assistance will
be made available to 30,000. Then the figure will grow as more people are
in need of the required medications,” Onishchenko said.
Russia has committed itself to providing medicine not only to Russians,
but also to CIS citizens. The summit participants in St. Petersburg were
told of plans to build a regional center in Russia to produce HIV/AIDS
vaccines and treatments. Russia proposes to allocate about $40 million for
the project. Part of the sum will be used directly to develop vaccines and
treatments. As a result, Onishchenko said, “this country will lead the
development of an HIV vaccine for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.” In
addition to developing the vaccine, the center’s function will be to
“carry out monitoring across Russia and Eurasia.”
The UNAIDS program says that the pandemic in this region is growing faster
than in any other, with the number of cases of HIV infection having risen
twenty-fold in less than a decade. In 2005 alone, 220,000 new cases were
identified in the countries of the region, and the total number of
infected reached 1.5 million. As many as 420,000 have died. In the Russian
Federation in 2005, the number of people living with HIV reached 940,000;
in Ukraine, 410,000; and in Belarus, 20,000.
All over the world, according to UNAIDS, 4.1 million people became
infected in 2005, and 2.8 million died of AIDS-related complications.
UN statistics, however, are belied by Russian figures, which are one-third
as high as international ones. Russian data, compilers claim, are based on
officially recorded instances. Every year Russia screens up to 20 million
people for HIV/AIDS.
According to the Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection
and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor), which Onishchenko heads, Russia has over
362,000 registered people living with HIV, 80% of whom are aged 15 to 30.
The latest estimates made by the service show that “a total of 11,861
people have died in Russia from AIDS-related illnesses since 1987, the
year the first case of HIV infection was recorded in Russia.” The worst
hit areas are the regions of Irkutsk, Samara, Orenburg, Sverdlovsk,
Leningrad, and Moscow; the city of St. Petersburg; and the Khanty Mansi
autonomous area. Nearly 50% of the Russian population lives in territories
with a high or very high level of HIV infection.
In most Russian regions, about 72% of HIV-infected people contracted the
disease through the intravenous injection of narcotics. However, a new
trend has recently come to light: There has been a dramatic rise in the
number of those getting the infection through sexual contact. Their
proportion of the total increased from 6% in 2001 to 45% in 2005. Experts
keep repeating that the disease is going “beyond the limits of the risk
group”, which is traditionally made up of drug abusers and commercial
sex workers, as prostitutes are euphemistically called.
Specialists are particularly concerned about the growing incidence of the
disease among women, because this threatens the health of the nation.
Women of reproductive age (between 15 and 44 years) account for 38% of the
HIV-infected population, and in certain parts of the south this figure has
topped 50%. Additionally, in the past six years, more HIV infections have
been identified among pregnant women, rising from 300 cases in 1999 to
3,505 in 2005. The number of babies born of HIV-infected mothers has
reached almost 11,500. All in all, there are around 2,500 HIV-infected
children in Russia. Their parents abandon most of them in the maternity
ward, and the question arises of where and how these children will grow
up. Instances have been reported where some of them were barred from
orphanages or from attending ordinary schools. Yevgeny Voronin, a
physician at the St. Petersburg center for helping HIV-infected pregnant
women and children, complains that although “a great deal h
as changed in recent years in pharmaceuticals and treatment of
HIV-infected children, nothing has changed in people’s minds.”
Russian officials are trying to place greater emphasis on efforts among
the general population, particularly prevention of HIV infection and
attempts to make people more tolerant toward those in trouble. One of the
AIDS advertisements shown on Russian television has the message:
“Don’t pass it by, it also concerns you.”
The campaign conducted by officials and caregivers working with
HIV-infected people has not yet reached the general population, although
quite a lot, including providing more financing, is being done in Russia
to control this scourge of the 21st century.
Russia, say officials, strictly follows the timetable of HIV/AIDS control
set out in the declaration of the 2001 special session of the UN General
Assembly. The Russian government has allocated more than $100 million in
2006 for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS and viral
hepatitis patients. Altogether, according to the plans of Russia’s
Health Minister, Mikhail Zurabov, total spending from all sources on
combating HIV will reach around $400 million. In 2007, the figure will
double, and Russian allocations will increase by 150%. In addition, by
2010 the government will have compensated the Global Anti-AIDS Fund for
the $270 million earlier channeled to projects in Russia. This point is
made in the supplement to the G8 summit statement on control of infectious
diseases. In 2005, Russia increased its contribution to the fund to $40
Russia now not only accepts international assistance for AIDS control, but
also renders it, particularly to CIS countries, and launches its own
projects in this field. This may turn out to be crucial in judging whether
Russia’s image has changed, although the path towards at least reducing
the number of HIV-infected in the country is going to be a long one. -0-