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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drug Use Causes Sharp Growth in HIV

Needle sharing among intravenous drug users has set off an explosive increase in Russia's HIV infections, with the number of new cases reported so far this year in Moscow alone - 4,000 - more than four times greater than in all of 1998, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

The UN agency's principal AIDS expert in Russia, Arkadiusz Majszyk, said the sharp increase was quite likely to continue for at least two or three more years, spreading to sexual partners before it levels off.

"It's a real epidemic picking up," Majszyk said in an interview Tuesday. "A critical mass of injecting drug users is coming into the picture, and because of this, one or two cases of HIV" - the virus that causes AIDS - "coming from outside the region is enough to start a very quick wave" of infections.

The total number of Russians officially registered as HIV-positive - 23,509 - remains low, Majszyk said, and only 445 deaths from AIDS have been reported nationwide. But the Russian government estimates the actual number of HIV cases at five times the reported number, Majszyk added, while, as a rule of thumb, Western specialists generally use a factor of 10.

Regardless, the figures are staggering. So far this year, the WHO report states, 12,425 new cases of HIV infection have been recorded in Russia - an increase of 358 percent over the total for all of 1998, and more than the total number of cases reported in all preceding years.

Three-quarters of the reported infections occur among men, the report states. The greatest rate of infection is among people between the ages of 18 and 25. Improved reporting methods may account for a small portion of the increase in known cases, Majszyk said. But the evidence points overwhelmingly to an epidemic borne by drug addicts, who he said comprise about 90 percent of the new cases.

Majszyk said the Russian government is awakening to the scope of the HIV problem and that officials are preparing an intensive effort, involving seven government ministries and 12 populous regions, to raise public awareness of the epidemic.

The spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Health and a press officer in the ministry division that deals with AIDS declined to comment Tuesday on the report, which they said they had not seen.

An accurate accounting of the nation's HIV problem, they said, must await a government news conference next week.