By Tom Hughes
When people think of Russia, the usual imagery that comes to mind includes freezing scenery, military power, and Vladimir Putin’s “muscled” body on a photoshopped image of a bear. However, the growing reality is far from this image of health – Russia is in the midst of an HIV epidemic. As of 2017 the estimated number of people in Russia currently living with HIV is between 1-1.5 million people, which roughly equates to just under 1% of the entire population. According to UNAIDS, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are the only regions in the world where rates of HIV contraction are climbing. In Russia alone there were 103,000 new cases of HIV reported in 2016, a number equivalent to the population of Leiden.
So who are these people contracting HIV and why are they contracting the virus? In most Western Countries, HIV predominantly effects men who have sex with men and sex workers. While these demographics are definitely high prevalence groups in Russia the issue is far more rooted in intravenous drug users, which has come to affect other members of society (such as women and children).
The rise in the epidemic has been narrowed down to three key factors. The first major factor for the contribution to this epidemic is the lack of sex education in schools. While this might sounds absurd, the vast majority of students in Russian schools never receive any kind of formalised sexual education programme. This is largely due to traditional values when concerning discussions about sex, which have been heavily influenced by the Orthodox church.
The second major cause of the epidemic is the lack of distribution of condoms for sex workers. As a result of this, the amount of unprotected sex in the nation is significantly high, and thus it has led to a high transference of the virus. The final reason, and probably the most substantial, is the inability to access clean needles and methadone therapy for drug users.
So what is the Russian government doing to prevent this escalation? All that is clear is the state’s lack of desire in tackling the fundamental issues concerning the spread of the virus. In 1997 Methadone therapy was outlawed in Russia. Combined with the difficulty in accessing clean needles, this has placed significant challenges for controlling the sharing of needles between drug users. In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, 26,693 people had the virus as of November 2016 (amounting to 2% of the population). Over 52% of these people had contracted HIV from drug use.
In the gap left by the government, many NGOs have stepped in to help contain this epidemic. One of these organisations includes the AIDS Centre (СПИД Центр). The organisation is devoted to help prevent the spread of HIV amongst groups that are otherwise ignored by the government, such as homosexuals and drug addicts. The work of the organisation in Saint Petersburg has seen a slow down in the rate of infections (from 2,200 in 2015 to 1,750 today). However, with a conservative government that seems to want little to do with the ongoing epidemic, the situation is likely to remain a crisis for years to come.
For information about what AIDS Centre (СПИД Центр) does and the epidemic in Russia, visit the UNAIDS website.