AIDS Spreading Through Eastern
Europe 'Incredibly Quickly'
By Margreet Strijbosch - Foreign Editor

The latest figures released by the United Nations and the WHO show that the deadly HIV virus is spreading through Eastern Europe incredibly quickly. While the number of new cases in Africa has fallen for the first time in years (3.6 million, compared with 4 million last year), the number of HIV patients in Eastern Europe has nearly doubled: from 420 thousand in 1999 to 700 thousand this year. In Russia in particular, the UN and WHO describe the development of AIDS as `dramatic´.
At the end of 1999, thirty thousand people were registered as HIV-positive in Russia. Not such a huge figure for a country with a population of 147 million. But by the end of October this year the number of registered cases had doubled to more than 68,000. And the World Health Organisation and the United Nations estimate that the real figure is many times higher. Viktor Golikov, former director of the Second Moscow Hospital for Infectious Diseases, is not surprised by the rapid increase of HIV cases in Russia.
"It began in 1995 with 180 HIV-positive patients in Ukraine. The Ukranian security service then started a crackdown on infected drug users, who fled to Moscow. Drug users here also became infected. At the moment the virus is spreading like wildfire."
According to Golikov, Russian drug addicts take enormous risks, by sharing the same needles which become infected with each other's blood.
Political cynicism The alarming new figures mean that, now more than ever, the hospitals in Moscow need expert leadership. But the director of the Second Hospital for Infectious Diseases resigned at the beginning of this year. Viktor Golikov was unable to continue seeing AIDS patients denied the treatment they require. Not just because these treatments are expensive, but because Russian politicians are not interested. Viktor Golikov again:
"The Russian authorities are extremely cynical about this problem. In confidential conversations I had with various politicians, most of them made it obvious that they don't see AIDS as much of a problem, since the disease only affects marginal sectors of the population: homosexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts. They don't understand that AIDS affects every level of society. They also argued that the problem was still not very great. They were only interested in big numbers. They believed they did not need to act, that they could leave it to the next generation of polticians."
Wrong expenditure The indifference of Russian politicians has also meant that the majority of the budget for AIDS prevention is presently spent on testing millions of people for AIDS, rather than on treating the thousands who have the disease. Golikov argues that only genuine high-risk groups should be tested for the AIDS virus; the rest of the budget should be used to buy what are often expensive drugs.
"Babies from HIV infected mothers, for example, are treated all over the world. But not in Russia. Babies can be treated immediately after birth, which greatly increases their chances of survival. However, only babies born in the Second Moscow Hospital for Infectious Diseases get this treatment. The others go to children's homes and the state simply lets those children die."
Golikov has now set up a patient organisation to inform AIDS suffers and their friends and families how to deal with the illness. And to alert the largely ignorant Russian public to the AIDS virus and to the potentially disastrous consequences if they continue to act as though the disease does not exist.
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