Russia: While the Russian government looks away, AIDS spreads quickly

Dozens of young men and women with HIV gathered recently to celebrate the anniversary of the clinic that tries to set itself apart from all the others: It gives people a place to speak openly about their health conditions and receive psychological help and medical consultations. Dr. Yelena Orlova-Morozova, one of Moscow’s leading HIV doctors for the region's state clinic, helped found this new nongovernmental organization, called AIDS.Center. The period in the name is intentional — meant to signify a difference from other clinics around Russia that are often simply called AIDS Centers.

AIDS.Center has only been open a year, which speaks to Russia's slow response to its worsening HIV crisis. AIDS has plagued Russians for decades, but stigma around the disease has been heightened by a government that prefers to pretend it doesn't exist, activists say. Orlova-Morozova opened AIDS.Center as a way to fight the disease.

"Ignorance and poor state policy cause the epidemic’s growth," she says, her eyes serious behind black frames. "I don’t think we’d be able to control the developing epidemic anytime soon, as people do not want to be educated about AIDS."

More than 14,500 Russians have died from HIV in the first six months of 2017, up 13.6 percent from last year, according to Vadim Pokrovskiy, head of the Russian Federal AIDS Center.

“To get infected, one needs to use drugs and change partners; the older the person is, the higher the risk is," Pokrovskiy says. Additional funding for HIV therapy would change the situation, the top specialist says, but the government is unwilling to admit there's a problem. 

For example, although Russia’s HIV infections increased by at least 100,000 new cases in the past year, the amount of medicine provided by the state remained the same.

experts struggling to deal with Russia’s HIV problem are convinced the real number of people living with HIV in Russia is much higher than the official 1 percent statistic. In April, President Vladimir Putin announced that, officially, there were 600,000 drug addicts in the country, but that unofficial data suggested there were actually 7.5 million drug addicts in Russia.  

Despite that candor, SPID, the Russian abbreviation for AIDS, was never mentioned. “Russian authorities are divided more or less 50-50 in those who believe that it is necessary to be open and speak about the issue of AIDS epidemics and those who insist that this issue should be ignored, at least in public speeches,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser. “That is why so far the federal approach to the epidemic is pale and ... failing." Read more via PRI