AIDS History in Russia

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AIDS in Russia

The first official case of HIV in the USSR was recorded in the end of 1986, in a Russian who contracted the virus in Africa and then infected 15 Soviet soldiers with whom he had homosexual relations. This was immediately publicized in a mass media campaign which proclaimed that HIV/AIDS was a disease of a corrupt lifestyle. The USSR was not ready socially, ideologically, or economically for a serious prevention campaign at that time-- homosexuality was illegal, issues related to reproductive health were not considered appropriate themes for public discussion, and the country was reeling from the instability of perestroika.

Between 1987 and 1989 a system of regional AIDS centers throughout the USSR was set up to carry out testing and limited prevention activities. Government policy emphasized using HIV antibody testing on a wide scale in an attempt to identify HIV-positive people. Between the years of 1987 and 1991 over 142 million people were tested. Only 0.004% of these tests were done anonymously. The majority of these tests were conducted without the knowledge or consent of those being tested and no protocols involving pre or post test counseling were instituted. Positive tests were often followed by aggressive contact tracing. The primary prevention campaign consisted of a discriminatory, fear-based mass media campaign which often led to heavy persecution of people with HIV/AIDS.

The political and economic instability of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in a general lack of attention to the issue of HIV/AIDS. In 1991, the Institute of Preventative Medicine stopped translating foreign literature about the issue. Information campaigns ceased to exist. The public gave little consideration to the threat of HIV during this period which is often associated with Russia's "sexual revolution," an increase in IV drug use, and a surge in prostitution. Today both the public's and the government's perception of the risk of HIV are very distorted. In 1995, according to official governmental statistics, there were over 10 million cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) reported in Russia.

Although it can be assumed that the level of HIV infection has some correlation with STD prevalence, this is not readily apparent from a glance at the official statistics of HIV infection in Russia. As of May 1996, there were approximately 1150 cases of HIV-infection reported among Russian citizens. Many specialists estimate that the actual prevalence of HIV is closer to 10,000. These distorted statistics may be due in part to the fact that people who engage in high risk behaviors, unaware of their right to be tested anonymously, often avoid testing for fear of persecution. Moreover, Russian medical specialists are given very little training in HIV diagnostics; therefore it is likely that many HIV-related complications and symptoms go unrecognized by gynecologists, oncologists, pulmonary specialists, dermatologists and other specialists. Artificially low HIV statistics cause HIV related issues to be given very low priority by the public and the government.

The low priority given to HIV at the level of the central government, compounded by the fact that the Soviet system left in its wake a strong feeling of dependence on the opinions and priorities of the central government, leaves organisations and institutions which deal with the HIV issue very little information and little financial support for HIV educational and prevention activities. A lack of "networking" among Russian organisations which deal with HIV/AIDS issues severely limits the flow of information. Until recently non-governmental organisations which can potentially fill the gaps left by the governmental system did not exist in Russia at all. As with many aspects of life in Russia today, this situation is rapidly changing. As of 1995, 30 NGOs have been registered in Russia which work directly with issues related to HIV/AIDS.

Institutions of the central government have showed increasing interest in the HIV/AIDS situation as seen by the passing of a new law in 1995 which specifically addresses issues connected with HIV/AIDS and by the fact that in 1995 the Presidential Committee for Internal Safety met twice to specifically discuss the issue of HIV/AIDS. Events like a recent drastic jump in HIV statistics in Ukraine have already begun to generate a stronger interest in the issue by Russian press. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations are beginning to actively to carry out more activities related to HIV/AIDS. This has generated a strong increase in the demand for accurate information about various subjects related to HIV/AIDS. Since the beginning of 1996, over 100 governmental and non-governmental organisations have requested information from the AIDS infoshare library for use in their activities. Topics most frequently requested include those on different aspects of: prevention, treatment, human rights, and organisational development.

While such demand is encouraging, as it shows an interest in conducting more productive projects, it also speaks of a serious lack in information. It is a fact that organisations conducting activities in the field of HIV/AIDS in Russia have much to gain from the experience of each other and that of the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it is also a fact that currently in Russia such information is largely inaccessible to those who require it. In Russia, one of the world's most educated nations, information of all types has great potential to impact the course of the countryís HIV/AIDS epidemic at this early stage of relatively low prevalence.