In the last decade, Russia has seen a steep increase in the number of new HIV infections. While the rest of the world noticed a drop in new cases, it is worrying that Russia had a 149% increase. According to WHO research, this is among the fastest growing HIV epidemics causing approximately 1.2 to 1.4 million people infected. Generally, Russia has had a poor history with HIV management, and the problem is not lack of funds or adherence to prescribed drugs.
Back in the 80’s when the first case of HIV was diagnosed, its records were expunged, and doctors coerced into misdiagnosing any incidence of the virus. Moreover, there wasn’t proper documentation of people at risk: sex workers, men having sexual activity with other men, and injecting drug users. While such behavior induced by the government overtly inhibited effective actions to curb the spread of HIV, having no database which forms the basis for countermeasures was the problem. Even if the government disbursed medication and antiretroviral therapy for people at risk, not much could be done. The concept of denial and repression of HIV coupled with ignorance created a brick wall for all efforts to minimize the spread of HIV.
Homophobia and the rise of HIV infection
One major issue that stands out in Russia’s fight against HIV is the manner in which people look down upon the gay population. In a place where a gay person can be persecuted on sight or discriminated by the government, more harm than good transpires. For instance, it is uncommon to notice someone being mugged as they leave gay premises, grenades being thrown at their favorite joints and what not, how many will come out and publicly declare their status? Even as you take the test there is always a question intended to reveal your sexual orientation – How you got infected.
If a man admits to have been infected by having intercourse with another man, the incidence is documented under “Code 103”. All information under Code 103 is accessed by the police and the ministry of internal affairs. However, the problem is that only 2% of people living with HIV in Russia are registered under code 103. In comparison to the rest of the world, this is quite a low number as more gay people do have HIV but cannot get tested in fear of the repercussions. Consequently, this doesn’t bring a lasting solution since health facilities can’t do nothing. In the background, gay men will still go undiagnosed fueling the rapid increase in new HIV infections. Some will not know they are infected and have to endure painful deaths which remain untold.
But still, Russia seems to live in denial to the fact that HIV is real. To some, a day cannot go without seeing a picture, video or text which declares HIV to be the greatest conspiracy of the 20th century. Some even go as far as calling HIV medication as a scheme to enrich the pharmaceutical industry by giving “poison” and call doctors “patient killers”. With an annual increase of 10-15% each year and medicine available, you would expect that people will tread this area with caution.
A government in denial
People are still reluctant to admit the presence of HIV as they are made to believe it is a western conspiracy to gain control of the world. Some who are lucky to be reached out to still decline taking HIV drugs because they saw online that HIV doesn’t exist. But even if everything goes on as planned, there remains some coldness as to how the government treats people at risk of getting infected. The Russian government is aware that the cases of HIV are rising but it hasn’t released enough funds, or stopped sidelining people who really need HIV medication.
As it seems, the problem is not that there isn’t enough funds or medication. However, there’s slight success on the fight against HIV for intravenous drug users although much should still be done pertaining to sexually active youth. It is possible to prevent further spread of HIV by using methods such as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and suitable barrier methods. A lot of people treat HIV casually even though the threat it poses is imminent.
Could the outcome be different now if there was a different approach back in the 80’s?
When will the government admit that HIV is now an epidemic and roll out stern measures to do away once and for all with this problem?
What should be done differently to curb this HIV epidemic in Russia?