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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New HIV Cases Fall But Fight Not Over

The country's AIDS problem is raging out of control even though the number of new HIV cases halved this year, health officials said Wednesday.

More than 220,000 people are infected with HIV, and at least half a million will die of AIDS by 2010 even if urgent measures are taken, the officials said at three news conferences held around town ahead of World AIDS Day on Sunday.

First Deputy Health Minister Gennady Onishchenko said 41,000 new HIV cases were detected in the first 10 months of this year, a drop of 47 percent from the number found in the same period in 2001. A total of 87,177 new infections were detected in 2001, a 46 percent jump from 2000.

Asked to explain this year's reduction, Onishchenko said, "I wouldn't say it's our work, but there are clearly fewer new drug addicts."

Military action in Afghanistan has hit the supply of heroin passing through Russia to Europe, he said.

Onishchenko said the share of new infections through heterosexual contact rose this year from 6 percent to 15 percent, a sign that the epidemic is accelerating its spread beyond intravenous drug users, who make up 90 percent of HIV/AIDS cases.

At a separate news conference, Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the Federal AIDS Center, said the decline in cases stemmed from the sample that was checked.

"The lower numbers are because a lower number of drug addicts were checked this year," he said in an interview. "Why less drug users were checked, we don't know. It could be that they are paying less attention to medical services or perhaps their practices have changed to lower the rate of infection."

Between 23 million and 25 million Russians, or about one-sixth of the population, are tested for HIV each year. In addition to drug users, those tested include people with sexually transmitted diseases and their contacts, prostitutes, pregnant women, prisoners and members of the armed forces, according to the Health Ministry.

Whatever the reason for the decline in new cases, Pokrovsky said, the fight against AIDS is far from over. He said the actual number of HIV cases probably stands between 800,000 and 1.2 million.

"We know that within 10 to 11 years, since these people became infected maybe five years ago, no fewer than half of those infected will die," he said. "That means a minimum of half a million dead, and possibly even a million deaths."

A British study that was highlighted in a report by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization this week backed up Pokrovsky's estimates. The study, which tested 426 drug users in the Volga city of Tolyatti in late 2001, found that 56 percent were HIV-positive and 75 percent of those infected were unaware of their condition.

"The study lends further credence to concerns that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Russian cities could be more severe than the already high official statistics indicate," the UNAIDS/WTO report said.

"It's a very serious situation, and 1 percent of the population of some cities is already infected," Pokrovsky said, naming the cities of Tolyatti, Norilsk and Orenburg.

Some 0.5 percent of the populations of Moscow and the Irkutsk and Khanty-Mansiisk regions are infected, he said.

Worldwide, AIDS has killed more than 3 million people in 2002, and the number of people with HIV has grown by about 5 million to 42 million, according to UNAIDS. Also, for the first time in the 20-year history of the AIDS epidemic, about as many women as men are infected with HIV, it said. Some 38.6 million adults and 3.2 million children under age 15 have HIV. Of the adults, 19.2 million are women.

Pokrovsky said the epidemic struck Russia almost a decade later than many other countries -- largely because the Soviet Union collapsed only 11 years ago -- and only 3,000 people have died.

Earlier this year, Pokrovsky together with Christof R?hl, the World Bank's chief economist in Russia, and Vyatcheslav Vinogradov, a Prague economics professor, drew up an economic model of the consequences of HIV infection that shows the epidemic will have significant effects on labor resources and gross domestic product, not to mention high treatment and prevention costs.

Onishchenko said Wednesday that 182 million rubles ($5.7 million) was allocated for AIDS programs in the

federal budget this year and that next year the amount will grow by 40 percent. Spending by regions and municipalities is higher than this; however, the costs of AIDS testing will not be covered by the federal government next year, he said.

Pokrovsky said most of the federal AIDS budget is spent on providing antiretroviral drug treatments that cost $4,000 to $6,000 per person per year -- which means only a few hundred people are treated.

A few kopeks per person are spent on preventive education, he said.

Pokrovsky also said there is a lack of coordination among government structures in the fight against AIDS. As an example, he said, while Russia is negotiating for a $50 million loan from the World Bank and is benefiting from a British AIDS program worth $40 million, it has pledged $20 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Mariangela Bavicchi, external relations manager for the fund, said Tuesday in a telephone interview that as a G-8 nation, Russia is ineligible to receive any grants. However, the growth in HIV/AIDS is similar to Ukraine's, and Ukraine has received funds.

Russia's situation appears serious enough that it could well be treated as an exception and receive a grant, Bavicchi said.

WHO representative Mikko Vienonen, speaking at the launch of a joint UNICEF, UNAIDS and WHO study on the effect of the epidemic on young people Wednesday, called on Russia to put a closer emphasis on prevention.

The study found that many young people have experimented with sex by the age of 15, he said. Whether older people approve or not, they should make sure that young people have the information to avoid infection, he said.

Vienonen proposed a new version of the traditional greeting given to students before exams. They are wished luck with the phrase, "Ni pukh i ni pera" (neither fluff nor feather), to which they reply "K chyortu" (to the devil).

Vienonen's version, which he recommended grandmothers say to their grandchildren as they head for the discotheque, is, "Ni VICHa ni SPIDa" (neither HIV nor AIDS), to which the answer could be, "K VOZu" (to WHO).

The risks of AIDS and HIV need to become a part of everyday life if society is to survive it, Vienonen said. The Economic Consequences of HIV in Russia HIV / AIDS Epidemic in ECA Young People and HIV/AIDS Opportunity in Crisis (PDF file) UNAIDS World AIDS Day 2002 Russian Project to Fight HIV Infection