- MOSCOW (Reuters) - AIDS is soon to ravage Russia with consequences that
may be even more catastrophic than in Africa, yet the public is barely
even aware the epidemic has arrived, Russia's top AIDS official said.
- After decades of little contact with
the disease, Russia and Ukraine have suddenly been caught unprepared in
the throes of the world's fastest growing epidemic of the HIV virus.
- Of Russia's 180,000 officially registered
infections, 100,000 occurred just last year. Experts guess the actual number
of Russian cases is as high as one million, more than one percent of adults.
- "Every year, we see the number of
new cases doubling. If this continues even two or three more years, we
will see not one percent, but two, four, eight," Vadim Pokrovsky,
head of the Russia's official AIDS centre, said in an interview.
- Because infected people do not immediately
fall ill and require treatment the disease is still all but invisible,
spreading before the public has a chance to see its effects.
- There are as yet no teeming clinics packed
with the desperate and the dying, no armies of children orphaned by the
disease or destitute patients begging on the streets. The untreated will
not begin to die in their thousands for a decade.
- But all that is coming soon, and virtually
nothing is being done to prepare society for the consequences, said Pokrovsky.
- "People do not see this danger.
Maybe it is because, for so many years we warned them 'AIDS is coming.
AIDS is coming'. And it never came," he said. "We expected it
sooner. It came later. And now people still think we're just making noise.
- SCARIER THAN AFRICA
- Russia's AIDS epidemic is already far
worse than in Western Europe and North America, where the disease struck
high risk populations of drug users and homosexuals but stopped before
becoming widespread among the rest of the public.
- Just how much worse it will get is not
yet clear. It began in Russia among drug users and has not yet spread widely
to the public at large through heterosexual sex, as it did in Africa.
- But Pokrovsky points to sky-high rates
of other sexually transmitted diseases, which are signs of widespread risky
sex and increase the chance of transmitting AIDS. Russia has syphilis rates
hundreds of times higher than in the West.
- "In this, Russia looks more like
Africa," he said.
- And even if Russia's epidemic stops before
it reaches the double digit infection rates in some parts of Africa, the
demographic and economic impact would prove even more severe.
- "In Africa, there are high birth
rates, but in Russia the birth rate is low. If we have a rate of only three
percent infected, population would fall by six percent," Pokrovsky
- "In Russia, AIDS is scarier than
in Africa. There the population is replaced. In Russia it will not be."
- CRYING WOLF
- Since HIV patients usually do not require
medical treatment until years after being infected, the financial burden
of the disease has yet to be felt.
- So far, the state is treating only 5,000
patients. But to keep up just with officially registered cases, it will
have to treat 100,000 in 2005 and costs will explode.
- As in Africa, Russia will probably have
to deny treatment to most patients and sentence them to certain death.
- Pokrovsky estimates a public relations
campaign to curb the spread of AIDS would cost $75 million. But the softspoken,
ginger-bearded young doctor has had no luck in winning funds.
- Not one prominent public figure has acknowledged
being HIV infected, though Pokrovsky has treated a handful.
- His clinic, behind a muddy construction
site in a dreary outlying Moscow district, hardly looks like ground zero
in the 21st century's most pressing public health catastrophe.
- "I'm crying: 'Wolf! Wolf!'. And
people say, 'That's just old Doctor Pokrovsky."
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