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Friday, August 13, 1999 Published at 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK


New battle against Aids in Europe

The spread of Aids in the region has affected people of all ages

By Mary Sibierski in Warsaw

The first international conference on the HIV virus and Aids to be held in a country of the former Soviet bloc is opening in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

The meeting, which is being attended by 500 people from 60 countries who are living with Aids, is aimed at finding ways of halting the spread of the virus across the region.

The United Nations says the number of people infected with the virus in the region has increased ninefold in three years.

[ image: Infections rise as the search for a vaccine goes on]
Infections rise as the search for a vaccine goes on
The director of the UN programme on HIV and Aids said that the country worst affected was Ukraine, but that Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation also have a growing problem.

While official estimates put the number of people living with the virus at just over 250,000, unofficial figures reach into the millions.

Social stigma

UN sources say that intravenous drug use remains the primary source of infection, with approximately 80% of all HIV-positive people contracting the virus in this way.

In Poland, there are an estimated 25,000 people living with HIV and Aids, and conference organisers say that by combating the social stigma attached to the disease, as well as developing prevention programmes, the country has made great progress in halting the spread of Aids over the last decade.

Organisers hope that Poland's eastern neighbours will learn from this example.

'Dangerous cocktail'

Dr Peter Pio, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids, acknowledged the way Poland was responding to HIV and Aids, but said the rest of the former Soviet bloc was "a new front line of the Aids epidemic".

He said the area had become more vulnerable to the disease because of

  • collapsing social systems
  • economic crises
  • higher population mobility
  • increased intravenous drug use
"'This is a very dangerous cocktail when it comes to Aids and that's why it's very important to draw attention to this problem and also that the governments and society in the region take it far more seriously than it has been doing up to now,'' Dr Pio concluded.

There are over 33 million people living with Aids across the globe, with nearly six million new infections last year.

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