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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Russians Are Not Rushing to Cope With HIV

Russia has a large and growing problem with heroin and HIV, and has the resources to do something about it, yet seems unwilling to do so. Reuters has a story today trying to unravel this mystery.

Separated from world no. 1 opium producer Afghanistan by former Soviet Central Asia, whose borders are porous, Russia has more heroin users than any other country. Moscow puts the total at two million, although the United Nations says there are half a million more, and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say there could be as many as three million.
This year, Russian health officials estimate 62,000 people were newly infected with HIV, a 10 percent increase on 2010 and the upper limit of a prediction made last year by the International AIDS Society. Officially, Russia has had almost 637,000 cases, including over 100,000 deaths in the year to November.
The UN puts the number of people living with HIV today in Russia at over a million.
The problem is that Russia has rejected the global community's findings that harm reduction programs really do work. Needle exchange programs really do reduce the transmission of HIV among drug users, and methadone also helps because it can be taken orally rather through a needle. But the Russian position seems to be the following:
"Working on drug dependency is more effective than needle exchange and methadone programs," said Alexei Mazus, who heads the Moscow Centre for HIV/AIDS Prevention, one of around 100 such venues across the country run by the health ministry.
In areas where needle exchanges have taken place, he said the health ministry had seen new HIV cases increase, not fall. Russia's health ministry said last year it had evidence that HIV rates have tripled in areas where foreign-run needle exchange programs were running.
These "findings" are almost certainly wrong or even bogus, given UN data showing the opposite kinds of results in a variety of global settings. It is not clear why the Russian government is in denial about the best way to cope with HIV. But the last time we saw a nation's leadership in denial about HIV/AIDS was in South Africa and we can certainly ask "How was that working for them"?

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