Regional HIV/AIDS Conference Opens In Russia

A regional conference kicked off Wednesday in Moscow with experts calling on Russian authorities to change their approach to preventing the spread of HIV among injection drug users [IDUs], Deutsche Presse-Agentur/M&C reports (10/28). “The calls came in the face of a doubling in the number of HIV infections in Russia in the past eight years,” the Associated Press reports. “The rapid growth of the epidemic in Russia is in contrast to sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, where prevalence of the virus fell during the same eight-year period, according to UNAIDS,” the AP writes (Birch, 10/28).

“Russia now has around 1 million HIV-infected people and around 2 million [IDUs], the head of the International AIDS Society (IAS), Robin Gorna, told the [Eastern Europe and Central Asia AIDS] conference,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur/M&C writes in a second story (10/28). The Russian government estimates that there are just over 500,000 people living with HIV in the country, Reuters reports. Experts worry “that Russia’s epidemic will spread rapidly beyond drug users to the general population of 143 million through sexual activity unless preventative steps are taken,” according to Reuters (Ferris-Rotman, 10/28).

During the meeting Wednesday, health experts said Russia should increase funding for HIV/AIDS education as well as needle exchange programs, and encouraged the legalization of methadone, a drug that has been shown to reduce the spread of HIV among drug users, Agence France-Presse reports. Russia’s chief medical official, Gennady Onishchenko, told the AIDS conference he opposes providing methadone to drug users because the government believes the data demonstrating the beneficial effects of doing so are lacking.

“Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, called methadone provision ‘an essential element of universal access to HIV prevention’ and called for Eastern European countries to introduce the programmes,” the news service writes. “I fear that in this region the legal barrier to harm reduction programmes also makes injected drug users a target for harassment, driving the people most affected by this epidemic underground,” Sidibe said (Malpas, 10/28).

“Maybe methadone therapy can be implemented in some countries, but not in Russia,” Onishchenko said, the Moscow Times reports. “Onishchenko also criticized needle exchange programs,” according to the newspaper (Odynova, 10/29). In general, “Russian officials view [the] so-called ‘harm reduction’ efforts [embraced by the international HIV/AIDS community] as encouraging criminal or shameful behavior, and the government has chosen to promote a just-say-no approach to the epidemic that urges people to adopt healthier lifestyles,” the AP reports (10/28).

Russia Commended For Treatment Program Gains

Speakers at the conference commended Russia on its treatment programs and increased investment in HIV/AIDS programs. “Since the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg in 2005, the government has boosted annual HIV spending by 33 times to 9.5 billion rubles ($325 million), but most of the funds are spent on treatment, [UNAIDS Regional Director Denis] Broun said,” the Moscow Times reports (10/29). According to the AP, the country has also “expanded drug treatment dramatically … and is among the leaders in reducing the incidence of transmission of the disease between mothers and their babies” (10/28). Reuters adds that IAS Executive Director “Gorna praised the Russian government for putting aside 9 billion roubles ($310 million) this year for treatment, with that sum set to more than double to 19 billion roubles by 2011” (10/28).

The AP/New York Times reports: “Russia has some highly successful needle exchange programs and free condom programs, several experts said, but many have been paid for through grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, an international public-private partnership. Now those grants are being terminated under Global Fund rules, the specialists said, because Russia is too wealthy to qualify for them” (10/28). The Moscow Times reports that Global Fund Executive Director “Michel Kazatchkine, said he hoped the government would keep the programs in place” (10/29). According to a joint statement issued by IAS, the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network and the International Harm Reduction Association, “The Russian Government has not upheld a promise made … in 2008 to finance the continuation of the services started by this [Global Fund] grant. The funding crisis leaves projects in ten regions subject to staff layoffs and closures, despite the fact that they have averted an estimated 37,000 HIV infections (10/28). 

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