UN Presses Russia to Grab Opportunity to Stem AIDS

Russia will undo good progress in combating HIV/AIDS and miss the chance to stem the epidemic if it does not offer more help to people who inject themselves with drugs, UN AIDS chief Peter Piot said.

After sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the former Soviet Union has the highest number of people with HIV, although the infection rate in the region has slowed over the last few years.

"They are on the right path, the right trajectory, but some difficult decisions have to be made," Piot said Saturday in Moscow during a conference on AIDS in the former Soviet Union. "The region is at a critical point."

Russia and the Central Asian states lie on the main heroin trafficking route from Afghanistan to Europe, and drug users injecting themselves with infected needles account for up to 80 percent of people with the HIV virus.

Former Soviet states have poured millions of dollars into combating HIV over the last few years and boosted partnerships between civil society and the government with positive results.

In sub-Saharan Africa, around 22.5 million people are infected with HIV, and in South Asia about 4 million people live with the virus. "Here the big difference is that injecting drug use is so widespread compared to other countries in the world; millions of people are doing it," Piot said.

Russia has declined to invest in clinics where heroin users can take the opiate substitute methadone in a clean, controlled environment — a technique which has reduced HIV infections in Europe and North America.

"If you don't supply clean needles, if you don't supply methadone, you can't control the epidemic," Piot said.

Some experts argue that introducing methadone will increase the number of drug addicts.