As Plus reported earlier this year, a million Russians are living with HIV, nearly 1 percent of the country's entire population, according to Dr. Vadim Pokrovksy, head of Russia’s Federation AIDS Centre. And the rates just keep climbing. (In comparison, 1.2 million Americans have HIV, accounting for .037 percent of the U.S. population.)
The ultra-conservative country has not responded to this information well. Rather than immediately forge a plan to help its HIV-positive citizens, the opposite is true, hundreds of thousands of HIV–positive patients are left with minimal resources — unapologetically.
Moscow journalist Kim Traill reports that infection rates in Russia are growing at 10 percent a year, hospitals are overcrowded, and there is not enough money for medicine. Much of the reason is the stigma around HIV. Even Russia's government seems to believe that only those who use injection drugs or are gay, in the sex trade, or have lots and lots of sex.
“We currently have 38,000 patients,” Dr. Orlova-Morozova, head of Moscow Regional Hospital’s AIDS department, told Traill. “The doctors must see up to 70 patients a day and we don’t have enough time to explain things properly to them. If we give treatment to everyone we’ll run out of tablets, so we have to refuse certain people. We have told the government we need five times more money than they are giving us, but so far we have had no response.”
There is unlikely to be one any time soon. Since Vladimir Putin has been president of Russia, the country has become — much like it was under the government of the Soviet Union — blind to social progress and narrow in its definition of “family values,” often using the Bible to defend discrimination against LGBT and HIV-positive citizens. As a result of that kind of fear mongering and suggestion that HIV is the result of low sexual morals, in Russia sex in all forms is starting to be seen as unclean and risky.
Most recently, a study led by the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, which was founded by the country's government in 2012, actually blamed condoms for the spread of HIV. As a result, condoms are “practically banned,” Orlova-Morozova says, because they are believed to lead people to have sex.
According to a Pew Research Poll, Russia has one of the highest levels of religious restrictions; in other words, the government limits religious beliefs and practices. In spite of that, Russia often points fingers at its own citizens, citing "moral decline" as a main cause for the number of HIV cases. As a result, ultra-conservative citizens feel obligated to incite hatred upon LGBT and HIV-positive citizens.
In fact, Traill reported that at one hospital corridor, a poster read: “The majority of cases of HIV/AIDS are due to the weakness and improper behavior on behalf of the infected person.”
That environment of rampant stigma leads many HIV-positive people to be neglected by their families and fired from their jobs; and discourages HIV testing and treatment. Which in turn fuels the epidemic.
Not everyone is buying the government’s fear tactics.
“Personally I am skeptical about the benefit of putting money into churches ahead of drugs and education, but many people believe it helps,” Dr. Pokrovsky said, adding that Russia's HIV epidemic is no longer limited to gays and injection drug users.
“Last year heterosexual women made up almost half of the country’s record number of almost 100,000 new cases,” Pokrovsky added. “HIV has entered the mainstream population.”
As the government continues to fail the Russian people, the virus will continue to spread.