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1 December 2017, 16:00
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Russia is failing struggle against HIV

Russia is failing struggle against HIV - picture 1

The Russian government is falling far short of its goal to counter a broadening HIV epidemic, the country’s top experts have warned, in a harsh assessment of Moscow’s record since it declared war on the disease a year ago, the Financial Times reports.

“It continues to grow, and that means we’re not working well enough on the prevention of this disease,” said Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Federal Scientific and Methodological Centre for Prevention and Control of Aids, the government body that collects the most authoritative data on the disease in Russia and acts as a consultant to the government.

“We registered 75,000 new infections until the beginning of November, and that means the figure will exceed 100,000 for the full year again,” he added. That would take new infections to about the same level as last year.

Contrary to global trends, Russia has experienced soaring infection and death rates from HIV/Aids in recent years as an epidemic spread from intravenous drug users to the broader population.

According to Russian and global health experts, this is the result of the authorities’ long-running refusal first to acknowledge the problem and then to back internationally recognised policies to combat it, such as health education, drug substitution programmes and large-scale antiretroviral treatment programmes.

Of 160,453 people newly diagnosed with HIV in 51 European and Central Asian countries last year, 103,438 were reported by Russia, according to a joint report released this week by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency, and the World Heath Organization. December 1 marks World Aids Day, when groups including the WHO seek to raise awareness about the disease.

Vinay Saldanha, the Moscow-based regional director of UNAids, said the HIV infection rate among 30-39-year-olds had hit 2 per cent, which he called an “unprecedentedly high level of prevalence”. Deaths from Aids are sharply on the rise, making Russia a stark exception from global trends, he added.

Moscow last year signed up to an ambitious UN initiative that among other measures aimed to diagnose 90 per cent of HIV infections globally and get treatment for 90 per cent of those diagnosed by 2020.

Veronika Skvortsova, Russia’s health minister, said this week that measures taken under the programme had helped slow the growth in new infections. But Russian and global health experts say Moscow is doing too little, too late.

“Both our tactics and our strategy in combating HIV infections are questionable,” said Mr Pokrovsky.

Testing for HIV infections had been stepped up, but the country has failed to provide treatment to the majority of those infected. The government also took more than five months to come up with concrete steps to implement its UN commitment, such as the necessary legal amendments and inclusion of HIV in government health programmes.

Government efforts to cut the cost of antiretroviral drugs, by concentrating more procurement on a federal level, have led to discounts from pharmaceutical companies. But the proportion of those receiving treatment for HIV in Russia is well below international levels, according to Mr Saldhana.

Natalya Yegorova, co-ordinator of Patient Control, a non-governmental group, said: “The promise that funds for therapy would be increased in the 2018 budget has not been kept.”

Health activists complain that patients are frequently forced to stop treatment when the regional healthcare provider runs out of drugs or lacks money.

Russia is also struggling to square the requirements of educating people about the disease and safe sex with a powerful lobby from the Orthodox Christian church. A school textbook proposed by Orthodox groups includes the claim that the US had been gripped by an Aids epidemic with prevalence levels multiple those in Russia, as a result of America’s loose morals — a description exactly contrary to the facts.

Author: Anna Fedoryak

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