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New York Times Examines Russia’s ‘Inadequate Fight’ Against HIV/AIDS

Russia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic “has defied worldwide trends, expanding more rapidly year by year than almost anywhere else,” the New York Times writes in an article that examines how the country has become “one of the world’s low points in the effort to fight the spread of HIV,” in large part due to the government’s failure to reach out to injecting drug users (IDUs) and sex workers – the groups “at the heart” of the epidemic.

“Nearly 60,000 new cases of HIV … were documented in Russia in 2009, an 8 percent increase from 2008, according to UNAIDS,” the newspaper writes. “Of those new cases, more than 60 percent were believed to have been caused by intravenous drug use, and many of the others were believed to have been infected through sex with addicts.” Yet, as the newspaper notes, little to no resources for HIV prevention are put towards these populations. 

“Officials estimate that well over a million people abuse drugs intravenously in Russia, often sharing and infecting one another with tainted needles. They are among Russian society’s most marginalized people, more likely to face a few weeks handcuffed to a clinic bed than to receive basic treatment to break their addictions. Meanwhile, officials have treated sex education and other preventative programs with open hostility,” according to the New York Times. “While some regions have experimented with needle-exchange programs, the practice, which has proven effective at reducing the spread of HIV in other countries, has not been adopted on a national level,” the newspaper adds.

The article notes that despite Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s recognition of the HIV/AIDS problem facing the country, a resistance among Russian health officials and the Russian Orthodox Church to drug substitution therapy – a widely accepted method to reduce drug addiction – remains. The story also examines how the government’s slow response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic following the Soviet collapse may have contributed to the spread of the disease; some of the challenges patients in need of HIV/AIDS treatment in the country face; and efforts now underway to address the problem.

Galina Chistyakova, a Health Ministry official in Russia who helps oversee the country’s HIV/AIDS policies; Pyotr Nikitenko, a former heroin user who now works for a Moscow-based outreach group; Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the country’s Federal AIDS Center; Lev Zohrabyan, the Europe and Central Asia adviser for UNAIDS; and several IDUs are quoted in the article (Schwirtz, 1/16).

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