AIDS Catastrophe Threatens Russia
By Tara FitzGerald

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The spread of AIDS could reach catastrophic proportions in Russia unless officials take quick action to reduce runaway growth rates of the killer disease, Russian and foreign experts said Wednesday.
The joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), in a statement issued ahead of a two-day visit to Russia, put the number of HIV and AIDS sufferers at 130,000 at the end of last year. But there is broad agreement that the number of cases is significantly under-reported.
Vadim Pokrovsky, director of the AIDS prevention center, told Ekho Moskvy radio that at the current rate of growth Russia could have up to a million infected cases in two to three years.
He said some consequences of the spread of the disease were already irreversible and if ``a passive and indifferent attitude to this epidemic (continues) Russians will face many more serious problems and tragedies.
``The main plague will start in five or six years because people are dying on average 10-12 years after contracting the infection and the mass epidemic in Russia started in the 1990s.''
UNAIDS said the largest share of funds requested for Russia would go toward preventing the spread of HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- through injecting drugs, by far the principal means of transmission in the country.
Resources would also be allocated for what was seen as a growing problem -- sexually transmitted infections, with efforts directed at young people and mothers-to-be.
``So far, the epidemic in Russia has been driven by drug users,'' Arkadiusz Majszyk, UNAIDS representative in Russia, said in the statement.
``But a second wave of HIV infections spread by sexual contact could follow the current drug-driven epidemic and in just three to four years, Russia may well have a generalized epidemic.''
UNAIDS said its executive director, Peter Piot, would meet high-ranking Russian officials and non-governmental groups on Thursday. The U.N. agency called on donors to allocate at least $20 million over the next three years to stem the epidemic.
Russian Aids Programs Poorly Financed
Pokrovsky said the existing anti-AIDS programs in Russia were ``surprisingly weak'' because they were poorly financed.
He said Russia had spent 44 million roubles ($1.6 million) on its AIDS program this year, roughly 1,000 times less than that spent in the United States.
Majszyk also told Ekho Moskvy Russia had the world's highest rate of growth for the spread of the killer disease.
``In the space of one month this year, 30,000 new HIV cases were uncovered, while last year this figure was three times lower,'' Majszyk said. ``With so many cases we can begin to talk about a threat to national security.''
The World Health Organization said this month the number of registered HIV infections in Russia had doubled annually for the last five years and it urged the country to take tough measures.
AIDS is the fourth biggest killer worldwide. About 18.8 million people have died since 1983, including 2.8 million last year, UNAIDS says. Nearly twice as many -- 34.3 million -- are living with HIV.

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