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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drug Use Blamed for Increase in HIV

Health officials have warned that the number of Russians testing HIV positive has more than quadrupled in 1996, largely because of a huge jump in the rate of infection among intravenous drug users.

About 800 people have been infected with the AIDS-causing HIV virus so far this year, compared to 190 in all of 1995, Irina Savchenko of the Russian Center Against AIDS told Interfax on Friday, adding that as many as 560 of these are drug users.

"The process was very slow while homosexuals, prostitutes, etcetera were spreading HIV," she told the agency. "But when the disease enters the environment of drug addicts, it starts to spread like a forest fire."

"That is why we have reason to speak of an HIV epidemic unfolding in Russia," she said.

The alarming new statistics come less than half a year after officials predicted that what they described as an epidemic in Ukraine and parts of Belarus would soon move across Russia's borders.

According to official statistics, Russia has registered 1,925 cases of HIV infection, and 163 people, including 70 children, have died of AIDS since the first case was reported in Russia in 1987.

The number of recorded infections is still much lower than in the United States, for example, where more than 500,000 people have contracted the virus.

But Russian activists are alarmed by the rate of infection and say the official number of cases in Russia is artificially low. One reason for this is that once they have been labeled as carriers, HIV-positive patients can be held criminally responsible for putting other people in danger.

The spread of the virus has often been blamed on foreigners, and some Russian consulates now require that visitors to Russia be tested for HIV before they can receive a visa for longer than three months.

Last year, however, the Russian Health Ministry received less than half of the funds budgeted by the federal government for AIDS education. By August this year ministry officials said they had not received one kopek of the 6 billion rubles allocated by the government for public awareness campaigns in 1996.

In Ukraine, a total of 1,805 cases of infection were registered in the first four months of this year, compared to 1,021 new cases in all of 1995. According to health officials there are now 8,500 known HIV cases throughout the country.

The situation is proportionally worse in the small former Soviet republic of Belarus. In the industrial town of Svetlagorsk, for example, with its population of 70,000, more than 1,000 people have tested HIV-positive since the first AIDS case was discovered in June of this year.