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Monday, March 22, 1999 Published at 13:48 GMT

World: Europe

Russia's Aids crisis

People with HIV depend on volunteers for help

Russia stands on the brink of an Aids epidemic, according to new figures released by a British Aids charity.

BBC Correspondent Robert Parsons: Epidemic of terrifying proportions
As many as 800,000 people could be infected with the HIV virus by the end of this year, says the London-based charity, Body Positive, which is working with Aids education groups in Russia.

Official figures for Russia as a whole stand at just 12,000 - a figure commonly accepted to be the tip of the iceberg, according to the BBC's Moscow Correspondent, Robert Parsons.

[ image: Babies are among those infected with HIV]
Babies are among those infected with HIV
Intravenous drug use, with addicts passing on infection by sharing contaminated needles, is cited as the main cause of the epidemic.

"You can get heroin easily in any Russian city," says Vladimir Lunitsky, a specialist on drug addiction in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

"The mafia is doing its business well, and drug addiction is the main source of HIV infection. It's impossible to stop."

The problem is particularly evident in Kaliningrad, where the city's status as a special economic area has made it a gateway for drug traders.

But the problem is nationwide, and Russia is ill-equipped to cope with the crisis.

Prostitution, a symptom of Russia's economic collapse, is also hastening the spread of HIV.

Ignored in the past

[ image: Infected prisoners are kept in segregated cells]
Infected prisoners are kept in segregated cells
Maya Chernikova, a doctor with the We and You Aids charity, thinks Russia is paying the price for ignoring the problem in the past.

"In Soviet times our government preferred to ignore this problem, because they dealt with a lot of economic and social problems, and so on.

"Many people decided that people who became infected belonged to the marginal level of society, and they're punished for their wrong behaviour.

"But this epidemic involves a wide range of people who weren't drug abusers."


Ignorance about the nature of the HIV virus is also common.

Body Positive spokesman Marcus Stephan said: "I have spoken to Russians who believe that if you are sitting next to an HIV-infected person on a bus and they look at you, you will become infected."

The official response is that infected people are kept under armed guard in hospital for fear that they will spread the virus.

Prisoners in the Kaliningrad jail who are found to have the virus are kept in segregated cells, with no medical care.

Sex education rare

Sex education for young people is almost non-existent.

A series of cinema advertisements promoting safer sex was withdrawn after the Orthodox Church objected to their sexually explicit nature, Mr Stephan says.

With little state funding available, Aids projects are forced to rely on voluntary help and donations.

Volunteers in Kaliningrad have set up the Aids Cafe to help combat ignorance and stem the tide of HIV.

The centre gives out clean needles in exchange for contaminated ones, and psychologists are on hand to provide counselling.

"Foreign aid is vital for us," says Alexander Drezin, who runs the centre.

"Not a single syringe here has been bought with government funds."

"There's a crisis in the country and ordinary people wouldn't understand if we wasted our money on drug addicts."

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