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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Says It Is Trying to Head Off AIDS Epidemic

Russian health officials acknowledged Monday that the country may soon be facing an AIDS epidemic due to the growing number of HIV patients among intravenous drug users, but said they are doing their best to prevent it.

"The situation in the Russian Federation is continuing to worsen but it's still not as dramatic as in Africa or Asia," Deputy Health Minister Gennady Onishchenko said Monday.

More than 12,000 new cases of HIV infection have been reported in Russia in the first nine months of 1999, and about 90 percent of those who have contracted the disease are intravenous drug users, he said at a news conference.

The new cases brought the total figure of people in Russia infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, to 23,502, including more than 200 children.

But an AIDS expert suggested the real number could be five times higher than the Health Ministry's statistics, as the majority of people with HIV don't know they have contracted the disease.

"In fact we have at least 100,000 HIV-infected people and possibly almost 200,000," said Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the Moscow-based AIDS Research Center. "As it is impossible to examine the entire population, a very minor part [of the population of those who are infected] is registered. I'm afraid we already won't be able to stop the epidemic."

Onishchenko said that this year the federal government has allocated only 21 million rubles ($794,850)- as opposed to 35 million rubles promised earlier - for its anti-AIDS program, which includes treatment for AIDS patients and a public-awareness campaign directed at the country's youth.

"The Russian government is doing something, but this is not enough," Eric Van Praag, acting director of the HIV-AIDS initiative of the World Health Organization, said in a telephone interview from Geneva. He added, however, that the situation is not unique to Russia. Virtually no governments, including those of wealthy countries, are doing enough to prevent the epidemic, he said.

In order to head off an impending epidemic in Russia, Van Praag said, the government must show a political commitment. The statistics in Russia are not yet as dismal as those in Africa and Asia, but "the rise of STDs and the increase in intravenous drug users create all the risk factors for an explosive epidemic."

As long as there is no vaccine or cure for AIDS, Van Praag said, the only possible method of prevention is stepping up health-awareness campaigns.

"It hasn't been very successful throughout the world, but what else can we do? We can't just sit back and do nothing at all," he said.

The number of HIV-infected patients registered worldwide is approximately 33.6 million. In Russia the most severely affected regions and cities are Moscow and the Moscow region, as well as the Kaliningrad, Krasnodar, Irkutsk and Tver regions. Of all the Russian regions, only Buryatia reported no cases of HIV infection. About 4,000 inmates in Russian prisons are infected with HIV, Onishchenko said.

He said the government plans to allocate funds for producing Fosfazit, a new drug developed by Moscow scientists earlier this year. Onishchenko said the drug has been tested and is ready for production. At least half of Russia's HIV patients should be able to receive it starting next year.

Fosfazit is designed to suppress the virus and prevent it from rapidly developing and spreading. Health Ministry officials say the tests showed it can produce a good result if combined with several other imported drugs.