Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Petersburg Events Aim to Raise AIDS Awareness

ST. PETERSBURG -- Health campaigners in St. Petersburg, concerned that an AIDS epidemic could soon engulf the city, are organizing a series of events aimed at raising awareness in the community and supporting those who have already been infected.

The events, which include a discussion in one of the city's schools about the need for respect and understanding of people living with the HIV virus and a holiday camp for 25 children with HIV, are designed to coincide with World AIDS Day which is being marked in other cities throughout the world Thursday.

Vinay Saldanha, program director of the International AIDS Project, an American and Canadian non-profit organization which is based in St. Petersburg and working to support people with HIV and AIDS in northwest Russia and the Baltic republics, says that although the number of people affected in the city is negligible at the moment, an epidemic is inevitable.

"The experience throughout the world has shown that the spread of HIV and AIDS cannot be stopped but only slowed down. A nation only begins to react when thousands of people are already living with HIV," he says. "St. Petersburg already has some of the highest figures in the world for people with other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis. When HIV does hit, it will spread like wildfire."

There are 104 registered cases of HIV in St. Petersburg with 825 cases reported Russia-wide. Experts agree the real figures could be much higher. Saldanha says the most serious threat comes from the rising number of drug users in the city.

"Heroin is coming into this city by the truckload from Central Asia and the Caucasus. There is already a huge problem of people with hepatitis sharing needles -- who is to say the same wouldn't happen if they had HIV?" he says.

His organization, which was recently established in the city, is the only one of its kind which is actively promoting information and education about the prevention of HIV and AIDS.

Saldanha, 24, from Toronto, Canada, has also organized a meeting of all the consuls in St. Petersburg on Friday to discuss the implications of the new law which calls for the mandatory testing of foreigners for the HIV virus.

The Canadian ambassador and his wife will donate toys to children with HIV who will take part in a holiday camp in St. Petersburg from Dec. 9 to 15.

The camp, an annual event organized by Yevgeny Voronin, chief doctor of the Clinical Center for AIDS, the only center of its kind for children with HIV and AIDS in the whole of Russia, is this year being sponsored by the Dutch AIDS Foundation with a grant of $3,000.

Russia has 300 known cases of children infected by the HIV virus following an outbreak in 1989 which spread through a series of hospitals because doctors reused infected needles and equipment.

In Moscow, several groups have organized events around World AIDS Day.

Ostankino television is planning to broadcast a program about AIDS, aimed toward teenagers.

Also geared toward young people is a series of citywide informational student gatherings conducted by the State Health Inspection Committee.

On the lighter side, the nonprofit group AIDS Infoshare Russia is holding a benefit disco at Club Hippopotam, where organizers hope to raise money to fund their Moscow-based library and pay for the distribution of AIDS educational material throughout Russia.

-- Frank Brown contributed to this report.