Reuters Examines How Russia’s ‘Drug Problem’ Has ‘Become An AIDS Problem’

Reuters, in a piece exploring the issue of heroin use in Russia describes how the country’s “drug problem has now become an AIDS problem.”

Despite having what Reuters refers to as “one of the world’s biggest heroin problems, with up to three million addicts according to local non-governmental organizations … Unlike most countries around the world, Russia refuses to finance harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges, or to legalize methadone. Over the past few months, Moscow has decided to discontinue the work of foreign donors and NGOs with heroin addicts. It even recently blamed foreign groups for worsening the country’s HIV epidemic,” according to the news service, which adds: “Officially, Russia has 520,000 registered HIV-positive people. The U.N. and local NGOs say there are probably closer to a million, maybe even more.”

The article describes the small number of needle programs in the country – a method shown to drive down spread of HIV/AIDS among injection drug users (IDUs) – and contrasts this effort to the government’s commitment to slashing mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS, which has “reduced transmission rates to almost zero.” 

The piece notes the $320.5 million the Russian Health Ministry dedicates to HIV/AIDS testing and treatment as well as the number of Russians living with HIV/AIDS who are unable to access antiretrovirals. Health experts’ predictions on what will become of the epidemic if the government doesn’t soon take action and thoughts on the country’s ban on methadone, a drug used to treat heroin addiction, are also included.

While “[t]he WHO regards methadone as essential in combating heroin dependence, …  in Russia anyone caught using it or distributing it can face up to 20 years in prison — as harsh a sentence as that for heroin,” Reuters writes, adding that the Russian government’s resistance to methadone “may be why relations between the … Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — which has been pushing for methadone legalization — and Russia’s health ministry ruptured at the end of last year.” The article reports that after 2011, the Russian Health Ministry plans to end Global Fund programs that supported clean needle distribution in the country as well.

Russian Health Minister Tatyana Golikova; Rick Lines, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association; Russian doctors who support and oppose the use of methadone; health workers on the ground in the country and a Russian heroin user living with HIV/AIDS in the country are quoted in the piece (Ferris-Rotman, 1/25).

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