Russia urged to tackle HIV epidemic

Health officials reject calls for methadone and needle exchanges to combat spread.

    Campaigners urged Russia to install needle exchanges to help curb the Aids epidemic [GALLO/GETTY]

    "Russia speaks out categorically against this component in prevention programmes," he told the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Aids conference, adding that methadone is illegal in the country.

    "We aren't simply denying this problem, we are proposing our solution."

    'No hope'

    The former Soviet nation has dramatically increased spending on Aids programmes since 2006, but international groups say funding is not being directed at the most effective programmes.

    "I think the problem that we're seeing at this conference is that the interventions that work best are not being put in place"

    Robin Gorna, International Aids Society

    Aids campaigners say giving methadone to drug users reduces HIV infection among the most vulnerable groups, and helps those infected lead more stable lives.

    Michel Sidibe, the executive director of UNAids, called methadone provision "an essential element of universal access to HIV prevention".

    According to UNAids, the rapid growth of HIV in Russia is in contrast with African and Asian regions where prevalence of the virus fell during the eight-year period in which Russian cases increased.

    Robin Gorna, the executive director of the International Aids Society, told Al Jazeera:  "We see absolutely no evidence that the epidemic is slowing [in Russia] whereas in other parts of the world we have got some slowing."

    "About two thirds of the epidemic - of the new cases - are amongst injecting drug users ... and I think the problem that we're seeing at this conference is that the interventions that work best are not being put in place.

    "There is no hope at the moment that this epidemic is going down without urgent action."

    'Encouraging criminality'

    Needle exchange programmes in Russia are generally funded by foreign donors, Gorna said, and face the risk of shutting down due to a lack of financial backing.

    While the UN estimates Russia has 1.1 million people with HIV, the government says it has registered just half that number - a total of 501,000 cases.

    The nation has increased spending on Aids programmes by 33 times since 2006, expanded drug treatment for those with the disease, and is among the leaders in reducing the incidence of transmission between mothers and their babies.

    But many Russian officials view so-called "harm reduction" strategies as encouraging criminal or shameful behaviour, and the government has chosen to promote a "just-say-no" approach to the epidemic.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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