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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

AIDS: A Battle Against Ignorance

ST. PETERSBURG - Ignored by the state and often spumed by their friends and neighbors, 30 children have spent the past week in the safety of a summer camp at Russia's only remaining treatment center for children with AIDS.


"People don't understand AIDS here", said Yevgeny Voronin, the head doctor of the St. Petersburg AIDS center, who organized the week-long summer camp. "In one village in Kalmykia a woman was beaten to death with a stick after her neighbors saw her on television and found out that she was infected".


Many mothers at the camp had horror stories to tell, less dramatic perhaps than that of the woman killed in Kalmykia, but appalling nonetheless. Most of these can be attributed to the former Soviet Union's total lack of information or education about AIDS.


There are approximately 300 known cases of children who are HIV positive in Russia. Every year, Voronin, 34, a dynamic doctor, travels throughout the country visiting those who cannot afford the trip to St. Petersburg. He said he believes that the actual number of infected children could well be up to 10 times higher than the official figures.


Support for these families outside St. Petersburg ranges from poor to non-existent, according to Voronin. He said the children's unit of the Moscow AIDS center was closed last month and responsibility for its patients transferred here.


As much as the lack of facilities, the mothers at the summer camp lamented the hostility born of ignorance that their neighbors show them and their infected children.


"We have to hide our children away, they are chased out of school", said Olga Malinina from the southern Russian city of Stavropol. "People would kill us if they knew our children were sick".


One woman was told by a local doctor that if her child was to be given treatment she must allow him to inform all the neighbors and teachers of her son's illness so they could protect themselves.


Many of the women are without husbands or partners. The men often leave their families, unable to cope when friends and neighbors turn their backs.


Last month the mothers were given a state allowance of 13, 000 rubles (about $13) to help toward the upkeep of their children. This month they have been promised 24, 000.


"It isn't enough to buy fruit and vegetables or the medicine our children need", shouted one woman angrily. "The state doesn't want to know us. No one wants to know us. No one wants the responsibility".


In the early days of AIDS, information about how many people were infected and how they contracted the disease was kept secret by the then-Soviet authorities. When the first cases appeared in the Kalmyk region where a hospital used contaminated needles for injections in 1987 the details went only to one doctor in Moscow.


It is now known that there were at least 250 cases by 1988. Voronin said there have been no new cases of babies being infected with HIV by dirty needles in four years, but all of the children who were infected in the original epidemic have still not been found.


Situated a few kilometers outside the city in Ust-Uzhora, the clinic - the Clinical Center for AIDS - has provoked the anger of nearby residents. When it was opened three years ago, 2, 500 local people drew up a petition to stop the clinic operating, saying they feared contracting the disease. The petition was sent to President Boris Yeltsin and the clinic was forced to close for 24 hours.


At the summer camp the children forget their illness. Entertained by a clown and monkeys from a circus they laugh and shout like healthy children.


The program is sponsored by Sterling Work, a British charity headed by former ballet dancer Liz Davies. She raised ? 25, 000 ($37, 000) by inviting St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet to give a special charity performance in London in June.


She said she believes that by attracting prestigious names from the Russian art world, AIDS will cease to be a dirty word in Russia.