Russia Increases Budget to Battle AIDS

Russia's HIV/AIDS epidemic is larger than any other in Europe. Activists have been warning that the disease might soon spiral out of control. Although the government has been accused of mishandling the problem, Russia is now stepping up its budget for AIDS prevention.

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The United Nations is reporting some success in battling the global spread of HIV and AIDS. But not so far in Russia, which has Europe's biggest AIDS epidemic and where HIV is spreading fast. This week, Moscow hosted the first major AIDS conference in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Kremlin has promised to boost government spending on AIDS by a factor of 20. Activists are hoping extra money and public attention will help stop the spread of the disease.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Twenty-four-year-old Svetlana Izambayeva says she wanted to die for months after she learned she was HIV positive. She lives in Siberia, in the remote Republic of Chuvasia, and says she and her friends knew little about AIDS. Some people were even afraid to touch her. So Izambayeva decided to speak out.

Last year, she gained public attention by winning a beauty pageant for HIV positive women, meant to help break down the stigma of infection.

Ms. SVETLANA IZAMBAYEVA: (Through Translator) I believe I'm a small ray of light from a tiny burning flame so that other HIV positive people can also stop crying.

Mr. FEIFER: Many Russians dismiss AIDS as a disease of gays and drug users. But Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Federal Anti-AIDS Program, says there's no such thing as an isolated risk group like drug users in Russia.

Mr. VADIM POKROVSKY (Head, Federal Anti-AIDS Program, Siberia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: He told a recent news conference in Moscow that many heterosexuals are contracting HIV through sexual intercourse, a negative tendency that he says threatens a generalized epidemic. Pokrovsky says Russia has about 330,000 registered AIDS patients, but he believes the real figure is closer to one million. Worst hit are the city of St. Petersburg and some Siberian regions.

AIDS activists have long criticized the government's slow response to one of the country's worst potential disasters. The Soviet government essentially denied the virus' existence when it first appeared in the 1980's. Russia's post-communist authorities have virtually ignored it. But doctors are hoping things will change this year.

President Vladimir Putin recently announced the government will dramatically boost AIDS spending to $105 million this year. Pokrovsky remains cautious, saying large funding gaps will remain.

Mr. POKROVSKY: There is not enough money for scientific work. There is many not enough money for developing of infrastructure. But it is an important first step, and also a very big step.

FEIFER: UNAIDS director Peter Piot is in Moscow this week for the Eastern European and Central Asian AIDS conference. He says it's meant to draw attention to the fastest spreading AIDS outbreak in history.

Mr. PETER PIOT (Executive Director, UNAIDS): It's going to very high levels, when you consider that there are cities in Russia were seven to eight percent of young men - men between 15 and 30 - are HIV positive. It's something that we hardly ever see outside Africa.

FEIFER: Although experts welcome the government's spending boost, they say it will only help if the money is spent effectively. Some Russian AIDS activists are worried funds won't go toward sex education and condoms, but line the pockets of bureaucrats and advertising executives.

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FEIFER: Critics cite a Moscow city advertising campaign last year that included television advertisements encouraging monogamy, but saying nothing about condom use. But the main battle with HIV and AIDS lies ahead. At the current rate, experts say up to 10 percent of Russia's adult population could become infected by 2010.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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