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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Battling AIDS




As the health ministry's representative to the Russian Center for AIDS Prevention and Control, Dr. Irina Savchenko is on the front lines of the country's war against AIDS. Kester Klomegah met with her to discuss what measures are being taken to focus on prevention and combat the rapid rise of HIV infection among young people.


Q:


Can you talk about your activities at the Center for AIDS Prevention and Control?


A:


Our main purpose is to organize preventative measures against all possible means of infection, to monitor the overall epidemiological picture throughout the country and to seek new methods of diagnosis and treatment.


Q:


Has AIDS really reached epidemic proportions in Russia?


A:


According to a United Nations Aids program assessment, the epidemic has just begun, and it will soon reach uncontrollable levels. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, mostly attacks the young, because they are careless and do not take precautions.


Q:


How does the AIDS situation in the regions compare to what is happening in Moscow?


A:


I can only answer that question based on the research we have conducted so far, but many people who fall sick do not report to the state hospitals and clinics that provide us with information. The official figures indicating the spread of AIDS in Moscow and the provinces are still believed to be only a fraction of the actual total. But the main trend we are seeing everywhere is that the number of drug users, who share filthy needles, is on the rise, thus increasing the likelihood of HIV infection among this high-risk group. Moscow has registered more than 5,000 infected patients, while there are 36,000 cases throughout the country. These, however, are official statistics. We estimate the actual numbers to be much higher.


Q:


We already know that people under 25 are most affected by the HIV virus, but have there been any new trends regarding the spread of the disease? Why are more and more children suffering from the disease?


A:


One trend we are seeing now is that more mothers are infecting their infants. Right now we have registered over 800 HIV-infected children, 342 of which are already full-blown AIDS patients. These are mostly the children of women who contracted the virus through regular drug use. The mothers then pass it on to their child during pregnancy or delivery. But we now believe that the virus could be transmitted via breast milk, so we strongly recommend that mothers carrying the virus do not breastfeed their children.


Q:


The statistical figures concerning AIDS and HIV in Russia are often contradictory. Why? Is this a problem of monitoring?


A:


The national AIDS center monitors the situation and collects the statistics directly from regional and provincial medical centers. We then compile this information and pass it on, but the health ministry sometimes releases statistics that fall short of the total.


Q:


You have devoted a lot of your time to AIDS research, but what can you say about the general feeling among those who carry the virus or who suffer from the disease?


A:


They have to go through a great deal once they find out they have the virus: shock, mental anguish, physical suffering and fear of death. They need our help. The fact that they are affected by the virus, for example, should not make them useless to society. They can continue to work and be an integral part of society. We can help prevent their isolation.


Q:


Why, in your opinion, are state authorities and politicians so slow to adopt a more dynamic approach to combat the spread of AIDS?


A:


Just consider all the health problems alone that the state must tackle: tuberculosis, birth defects, the rise of sexually transmitted diseases, etc. It is impossible to single out the HIV virus alone and treat it at the expense of other illnesses - that would lead to a number of other disasters. I think, given the situation, the authorities have done their best, but it is still not enough. The cost of AIDS research, diagnosis, and even screening donated blood is already too high. Until recently we didn't even have any money for AIDS prevention programs, but after some serious negotiations last year the government finally agreed to allocated 36 million rubles (not much more than $1 million) for this.


Q:


Is this really adequate?


A:


We will need a lot more money if we are to reach risk groups with effective awareness, prevention, and treatment programs. But we are optimistic that the political authorities will give priority to the prevention and treatment of AIDS. After all, when the disease threatens to play havoc in our society, it is only appropriate for us to ask for more financial resources to combat the disease.


Q:


Do you share data and collaborate with other institutions dedicated to AIDS research outside Russia?


A:


We cannot work in isolation - AIDS is a global disease. We cooperate closely with our colleagues in Europe and the UN AIDS office. Population Services International, a U.S.-based non-profit group, has coordinated many public awareness campaigns for us. A number of other international non-governmental organizations have also played a role in helping us to combat AIDS in Russia. Doctors Without Borders, for example, is assisting us with literature we can hand out to the public, and other groups have sponsored safe sex programs for school children. In many schools, however, talking about sex is still considered taboo.


Q:


It seems that in Russia there is a generally negative attitude toward the use of contraceptives.


A:


It's true that many Russians forget about contraceptives in the heat of the moment. There are people who are by nature promiscuous, preferring to have multiple sexual partners, and still they continue to have sex without a condom. They tell themselves, "this condom is not for me. I am not a diseased person. I am healthy." But only fidelity in marriage and relationships is the ideal protection against contracting the disease.