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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Health Officials Scorn New AIDS Bill

A draft law requiring all foreigners entering Russia to take an AIDS test or face deportation would be impossible to enforce and detrimental to AIDS prevention, top Russian health officials said Monday.


The State Duma on Friday approved a second reading of the bill by an overwhelming vote of 252 to 3 with one abstention. But health officials who drafted the original, less drastic version of the bill were crying foul Monday.


"It's not just that the law won't do any good, it may actually do a lot of harm," said Professor Boris Pokrovsky, head of the Russian Center for AIDS Prevention. He said an increase in mandatory AIDS testing would divert sorely needed funds from research and education.


"Even now, testing eats up 95 percent of the government funding for AIDS prevention, and now they want to make more people take tests," he said, adding that the in 1994 government allocated a mere 201 million rubles ($65,000) for AIDS research but a whopping 50 billion rubles for testing.


"The draft law I worked on called for big cuts in mass testing, not an increase in it," said Pokrovsky. "I will insist that the Federation Council vote down this bill."


The bill becomes law only if it is approved by the Federation Council, the Russian parliament's upper house, and then is signed into effect by President Boris Yeltsin.


But members of Moscow's foreign community expressed their outrage at the prospect of compulsory AIDS testing Monday.


"It's tantamount to seeing people with AIDS in the West thrown out of bars and restaurants," said Sophie Wilson, 22, a British student who attends drama school in Moscow.


"It's based on fear-mongering and nationalistic fervor, which distort the actual issues,'' said Dr. Myles Druckman of the American Medical Center, The Associated Press reported.


The law only empowers state-run Russian clinics to declare a person HIV-negative.


Though the bill grants an exemption from testing here to foreigners whose home countries have agreements with Russia on the mutual recognition of certificates proving that a person is not an HIV carrier, a Foreign Ministry official said no such agreements existed.


"I've never heard of such a thing being signed with any country," said Valeri Knyazev, head of the ministry's International Treaties Department.Mikhail Narkevich, deputy head of the Disease Prevention department at the Health Care Ministry, said he had already received calls from several embassies worried about the bill, though he declined to say which.


Narkevich, who took part in preliminary work on the bill, said he could not accept the version approved by the Duma.


"I categorically disagree with this version," he said. "I believe the president may disagree with it, too."


Officials at the Federation Council said they had not yet received a copy of the bill, while Presidential spokesman Anatoly Krasikov said the draft was on the president's desk but that Yeltsin had not yet formed an opinion on it.


The health officials said amendments made to the bill during the second reading had perverted their original concept of the AIDS law.


During the debate last Wednesday, a number of legislators demanded that the bill cover all foreigners coming to Russia for whatever purpose. The amendment was accepted and the bill was approved without further discussion Friday.


Leonid Kogan, a doctor on the staff of the Health Care committee who also worked on the bill, said that in the form passed by the chamber the law was "firstly, impossible to implement to the letter and secondly, meaningless."


Kogan said the results of a test only become known within 10 or 12 days after a blood sample is taken, meaning that many delegations and tourists would have left the country by the time their test results came in.


"But the argument that is really convincing for the deputies is that in the rest of the world more people have AIDS, so the policy of voluntary testing, supported by most other countries, is wrong," said Kogan.


Kogan added that if the Duma's version became law, he hoped the Health Ministry would issue implementation instructions softening the requirements, a prediction backed up by Narkevich's opposition to the bill.


Pokrovsky, Kogan and Narkevich all said they did not see how the comprehensive screening of foreigners demanded by the bill could be implemented.


If it were passed, the bill could put Russia in a class of its own on AIDS policy. A World Health Organization AIDS Group spokesperson, reached by phone in Geneva, could not think of any nation that required AIDS tests as a condition of entry, although some require longer term foreign residents to take tests.


Yuly Gusman, the reformist deputy who was one of only three Duma members to vote against the bill, believes that the testing requirement could stop people from coming to Russia.