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 $800.

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 million.

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-