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Stigma Fuels Russian AIDS Epidemic

Russian AIDS

Russian government health officials are failing to control the nation’s HIV and AIDS epidemic effectively, and the world is now taking notice.

Ignorance and the condemnation of people living with HIV have contributed to the demise of Russia’s already-limited HIV-related resources—and all for a morality-based crusade.

Receiving an HIV diagnosis in Russia typically isn’t followed with helpful, loving assistance. “I became a person of a second class,” Nika Ivanova told Politico Magazine in a Feb. 25 exposé. “[My doctor] assumed I was a drug addict or a prostitute.” Ivanova was reportedly told that she would certainly die and that being infected with HIV was her own fault. That was many years ago when Ivanova was 18—but it led her to become an HIV activist herself.

For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated an unhealthy, codependent alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, an alliance that targeted “nontraditional sexual relations.” In this environment, almost any sexual education in schools was banned. “In Russia, the church and the state go together,” added Ivanova. “They talk about how sexual education will only worsen the [HIV] problem. It’s a wave—you really feel it.” Although Putin has denied that Russia is a theocracy, his actions speak differently.

A “scientific” study by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies claimed that the usage of condoms leads to dangerous behavior. Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science deemed the word “condom” as inappropriate for children, thereby omitting critical information that could prevent disease in Russia.

The anti-gay rhetoric is Russia obviously affects the way people living with HIV and AIDS are perceived and treated. Putin’s 2013 anti-gay propaganda law led to increased violence against LGBTQ people including those that are HIV-positive.  Putin’s anti-gay stance was reiterated in a reelection propaganda video that was recently released. In the video it describes that if any of Putin’s pro-gay rivals are elected, it will result in a “nightmare” in Russia.

Russia’s Orthodox Church has a heavy hand in the culture of Russia, and often promotes conservative family values while condemning topics like sexual education. HIV experts worry that an entire generation could go on without being educated on the risks of unprotected sex and intravenous drug use.

Vadim Pokrovsky, head of Moscow’s Federal AIDS Center, has called Russia’s HIV epidemic a “national catastrophe.” While HIV rates in the United States are slowly decreasing, and in decline in many areas of the world, Russia is another story, and AIDS-related deaths are on the rise.

Some 14,631 Russians died from AIDS-related symptoms during the first half of 2017, according to a study published in PLOS Medicine, marking a 13 percent increase from 2016. “The continuous growth of the Russian HIV epidemic is a failure of public policy and practice,” researchers concluded. “The current list of interventions with demonstrable efficacy in reducing HIV spread and improving treatment outcomes includes opioid agonist substitution therapy, needle and syringe exchanges, treatment as prevention, preexposure prophylaxis, and tailored interventions for key populations including PWID, MSM, sex workers, prisoners, and migrants. In the RF, all of these interventions are either not available or are unavailable at the scale necessary to control HIV.”

On Jan. 21, Russia’s one millionth HIV case was confirmed, although the actual number could be as high as 1.5 million, or about one percent of Russia’s entire population. The nation’s 2016 HIV budget of RUB 21 billion (US$325 million) was only enough to cover one-fifth of the nation’s HIV care needs. Other factors are at play here as well. In the span of about three years, about 70 people, often young children, died in Russia due to HIV/AIDS denialism.

Despite the absence of proper HIV education and resources, smaller organizations like the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice conduct basic tasks like HIV tests, clean needles, condoms and information in Moscow.


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Benjamin M. Adams