Struggle against AIDS requires change in public attitude

"There are 283,000 registered HIV cases in Russia, including 9,949 children," said Russia's chief sanitary physician Gennady Onishchenko. "The first case was registered in 1987, when the first systems to monitor the situation were created. In Russia, the disease is diagnosed at the HIV stage, when the patient shows no clinical effects yet. In all, 741 patients have died of AIDS in Russia."

According to Onishchenko, the AIDS epidemic in Russia was caused by "the opening of borders in the 1990s, the impoverished population, and prostitution."

When the borders were opened, narcotics streamed into Russia. "We fought back for a time, but AIDS started spreading in 1996 through unsterile syringes. Hard drug users facilitated the spread of the disease. This is why the number of HIV patients aged 14-25 has grown dramatically, as most drug addicts are in the same age bracket. The disease spread like a brush fire in Kaliningrad, Russia's enclave in the west."

"In fact, we are fighting three diseases at once - drug addiction, HIV and hepatitis," said the chief sanitary physician. An intensive anti-drug campaign has been launched. The campaign includes educational programs that teach addicts not to share needles and "intellectual" projects for drug addicts and prostitutes.

The incidence rate of the disease has dwindled in the past years, said Gennady Onishchenko, and the number of AIDS prevention centers has grown to 114. The incidence of medical transmission of HIV has plummeted (disposable syringes have become much more popular and easier to buy than they were in the 1990s). "The number of cases when mothers transmit HIV to their unborn babies has shrunk too," said the physician. "We are using international experience and giving mothers a medicine that reduces the amount of the virus in blood and prevents the fetus from being infected."

On the other hand, the incidence of sexual transmission of HIV grew to 12% of new cases last year.

One of the main tasks for healthcare professionals is to create quarantine blood banks. In the future, we should act on the decision of the World Health Organization and "stop organ and tissue transplants and biological liquid - including blood - transfusions." Such procedures increase the risk of transmitting "infections which we are not aware of," he said. "It is better to produce artificial blood and grow organs."

To stop the spread of the HIV epidemic, Russians should review their attitude to health. "We did not care for our health," said the doctor, "which is why Russian society was not ready for the deadly infection. However, there are signs of positive changes in the public's attitudes."