Tag Archives: HIV/AIDS

Viral Tide: How Russia became the new frontline in the war on HIV/AIDS

Viral Tide: How Russia became the new frontline in the war on HIV/AIDSIn February this year, Oksana Bobok woke up in a Yekaterinburg hospital to be told her unborn child had been aborted. “I’d been in a coma for a month and a half. It was save me, or save the child. They chose to save me,” she said.  It was the bitter culmination of an advanced HIV-related infection the 34-year-old former heroin addict had unwittingly been living with for most of adult life.  Now wheelchair bound and partially paralysed, Ms Bobok’s calamitous fall from health is made all the more tragic by the fact it could have been prevented. It is more than 30 years since HIV/Aids was recognised as a global crisis and, despite a total total death toll of 35.5 million, the response has in many ways been a triumph. Across the world, advances in testing, treatment and, perhaps most important of all, understanding have made HIV a wholly manageable condition.  Sex education and safe sex have slashed infection rates, while rapid testing and new antiretrovirals mean those living with HIV can lead full and healthy lives. According to the United Nations, Aids related deaths have fallen 51 percent since their peak in 2004, new HIV infections per year are down 16 percent since 2010, and a record 75 percent of infected people now know their status, with and an estimated 59 percent receiving life saving antiretrovirals. But there is one anomaly – Russia and its former Eastern bloc satellites. Aids deaths in the region have climbed by 38 percent in the past ten years – almost as much as they have fallen elsewhere – and more than half of those with HIV only discover the infection once they develop Aids, according to the latest WHO report.  Russia, by far the largest country in the region, now has around a million people thought to be living with HIV.  “It’s the one region in the world where the rate of new infections is still growing,” said Vinay Saldanha, the Moscow-based head of UNAIDS for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “This is the frontline… What happens here and what governments do in the next two years will determine whether we can actually get the global HIV epidemic [back] on track.” Ms Bobok and her husband Piotr, who is also HIV positive Like so many of the problems facing modern Russia, Ms Bobok's tragedy and the HIV crisis are enmeshed with the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet collapse.  The first HIV case in Russia was only reported in 1987 – well into the Aids scare sweeping the West, and a year after Margaret Thatcher’s government had authorised a hard-hitting publicity campaign to tackle what was already an epidemic in Britain.  Russian infection rates grew slowly – until a flood of heroin hit the country following the Soviet collapse as drug traffickers entered a previously untapped market.  In around 1996, doctors began to see HIV cases among drug users. And the subsequent needle-borne epidemic ripped through Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states with frightening speed.  Today, experts say 80 percent of infections can be found in just 20 of Russia’s 85 regions – the same relatively rich, industrially developed areas that were hit hardest by the heroin glut two decades ago.  But it is not just needle sharing that is spreading HIV in Russia today, with most infections now caused by heterosexual sex, and affecting everyone from urban youth to rural pensioners.  In terms of sheer numbers, Russia’s epidemic is minuscule compared to the catastrophe in southern and eastern Africa.  Denying the virus | Who are Russia’s ‘HIV Dissidents’? But combined with a conservative government reluctant to embrace basic preventative measures such as sex education in schools, and a subculture of so called “HIV dissidents” who variously hold that HIV is a US plot, a conspiracy by big pharma, or nothing to worry about, it has become one of the fastest growing epidemics in the world.  “So HIV came on the back of the heroin epidemic. And then from the vulnerable groups the virus spread into the general population, first via needles, then via sex”, says Aleksandar Chebin, a project manager at New Life, a charity in Yekaterinburg founded and run by HIV positive volunteers. “Now it is well adjusted, ordinary people who have a family and a job – they are now the main group where infection is detected. “Go and have a look at yourself in the mirror – that’s what the risk group looks like.” Nika Ivanova's daughter – Nika contracted HIV at a young age from a boyfriend Nika Ivanova was an early casualty.  Then 17 years old, she had been dating an older boyfriend for six months when a routine visit to the gynaecologist resulted in an HIV diagnosis in the early 2000s. Her boyfriend, it turned out, had once been an intravenous drugs user. “I don’t blame him, because he didn’t know,” she says. "He was a just a young man who had experimented with things. “If only I knew about contraception… I was 17 at the time. No one talked to me at home. No one talked about sex, full stop, and especially not about HIV.” Now 34, Ms Ivanova is a professional psychologist living a typical Moscow middle class life – she is proof that with modern retroviral treatment, HIV need not be a death sentence. Nika Ivanova and her daughter – Nika contracted HIV at a young age from a boyfriend Unfortunately, many in Russia are not so lucky.  Although the state officially distributes anti-retroviral drugs to HIV positive patients for free, in practice only about 380,000 of the roughly one million infected Russians are receiving therapy, according to statistics compiled by the country’s Federal HIV centre.  “About 60 per cent of people are not getting therapy, and that’s why people are still getting Aids,” said Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the centre.  The problem, he says, is money. He estimates it would take a tripling of annual HIV spending to about $ 1.3 billion (£1 billion) in order to make up the difference.   Ms Bobok, now a wheelchair user, is one of those for whom anti-retroviral treatment is far from secure. Born in eastern Ukraine and raised in a downtrodden part of Russia’s Urals, she got into drugs at an early age, contracted HIV via needle sharing, and only found out months later when she landed in prison, age 19.   In prison she received antiretrovirals to suppress the virus. But because she only ever held an old Soviet passport, when she was released in 2015 she was classed as a stateless person and struggled to access the state-supplied medication available to Russian citizens. In less than three years, she developed Aids. “She was pregnant for the second time, and they had stopped issuing pills for her as soon as she gave birth last time, ” said her husband Pytor, who is also HIV positive.  “Her immune system became really weak, and when she was put on life support, the doctor said that her HIV had progressed into Aids because she had not been getting treatment,” he added. The couple's first child died after being born prematurely. Russia’s ministry of health says a major “test and treat” campaign has seen Aids deaths begin to stabilise and the rate of new infections begin to slow in the past two years.  About 30 million Russians, or 30 percent of the population, were tested last year. It has also unveiled a new national strategy for fighting the spread of the disease.  Drafted by the country’s top HIV doctors, it includes provision for harm reduction measures such as needle exchange programs, and has been welcomed by the UN as a major step forward.  But the most fundamental challenge remains political.  Ideas such as needle exchange programs, methadone substitution, and sex education in schools have set alarm bells ringing among the Kremlin’s conservative base. “We’re not prudes – we’re opposed to this because there is a big question mark about whether it really works,” said Zhanna Tachmamedova, a spokeswoman for the All Russian Parents Resistance, a pressure group that has successfully lobbied for the closure of HIV education programmes in schools in several parts of the country. Oksana Babok and senior foreign correspondent Roland Oliphant in Russia Russian school children have not had any sex education since 1997. Ms Tachmamedova, a St Petersburg-based child psychologist, argues introducing it would be counterproductive. Teach teenagers about sex, she worries, and the rate of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies will increase. Such attitudes dismay educators worried about about the risks teenagers face. "Statistics show that you have less infections, less premature pregnancies, fewer underage abortions, where there is sex education," said Daria Rakhmaninova, a Moscow high school teacher who has launched voluntary seminars for parents and families interested in sex education outside school.   There is one part of the country where progressive policies have been tried – with startling success.  St Petersburg is the first major Russian city to see a consistent decline in rates of new infections. In 2017, there were about 1750 new diagnoses in the city, down from nearly 2200 in 2015 – a fall of 20 percent in two years.  It is a remarkable achievement, which experts put down to the way the city government has harnessed the help of NGOs, businesses and HIV-positive citizens to deliver the WHO’s recommended ‘test and treat’ strategy as well as other harm reduction initiatives like condom and syringe distribution.  This month, the Federal Ministry of Health gave the St Petersburg HIV Centre a prize for the best public awareness campaign.   And there are signs that other regions may follow suit. Alexander Vysokinsky, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, this month announced the industrial megapolis would be the first Russian city to sign up the UN’s Paris declaration – a pledge to get the HIV crisis under control by 2020.  It is a hopeful sign, says Ms Ivanova, as she watches her daughter on the playground outside her Moscow apartment block.  “The worst thing about this epidemic is that it is not just an HIV epidemic. It is an epidemic of stigma,” she said.  Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security



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Trump reportedly fired his entire HIV/AIDS council by FedEx letter

Trump reportedly fired his entire HIV/AIDS council by FedEx letterPresident Donald Trump reportedly fired the sixteen remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) Wednesday via a letter FedExed from the White House.



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Trump Reportedly Terminated All Members Of HIV/AIDS Council Without Explanation

Trump Reportedly Terminated All Members Of HIV/AIDS Council Without ExplanationThe White House has reportedly fired the members of Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) without explanation.



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Federal program cuts disparities in HIV/AIDS care

By Ronnie Cohen (Reuters Health) – When Gina Brown was diagnosed with HIV in 1994, she considered it a death sentence, but nearly 23 years later, she’s living a full life in New Orleans, thanks largely to the federally funded Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. In 2014, the safety-net program provided drugs, medical care and support services to more than 268,000 people in the U.S. living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections. Now a study shows that in 82 percent of them, including Brown, HIV is no longer detectable in their blood – a state known as “viral suppression.” Those who are virally suppressed take antiretroviral medications that allow them to expect to live a nearly average lifespan.
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Mozambique myth-busting helpline tries to tackle HIV/AIDS

By Hannah McNeish XAI XAI, Mozambique (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In Mozambique’s Gaza province, if someone makes it to their 35th birthday, “you rejoice”, said Shady Zita, an English teacher in a rural secondary school. Most of the funerals that he goes to are for people who are even younger, as a deadly virus that no one wants to speak about keeps picking off Mozambique’s youth. “We are surrounded by people who have HIV, to be frank,” said Zita, who until recently also knew very little about the province’s biggest killer.
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Surging heroin use threatens Kenya’s HIV/AIDS gains

By Neha Wadekar NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Rashid Hassan Mohammed began using drugs when he was 15, after fleeing an abusive home in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa and joining a street gang that robbed and stole to buy heroin. “I didn’t think that when you inject, or share the same injection with your friend, it may cause HIV,” said Mohammed, 34, who has been receiving methadone treatment for a year to wean his body off heroin. Narcotics have spilled on to the local market, where people are largely unaware that injecting drugs can lead to HIV infection, sparking concerns that Kenya’s success in tackling HIV could be reversed.
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HIV/AIDS still top killer of African adolescents

People sit in the waiting room at an anti-retroviral clinic, in Emmaus hospital in Winterton, South AfricaHIV/AIDS remains the leading cause of death among Africans aged between 10 and 19, UNICEF chief Anthony Lake said Monday at the start of a major international conference on the virus. "Despite remarkable global progress in tackling the HIV/AIDS pandemic, much work remains to be done to protect children and adolescents from infection, sickness and death," Lake said in a statement released on the first day of AIDS 2016, held in the South African city of Durban. "AIDS is still the number two cause of death for those aged 10-19 globally — and number one in Africa," added the head of the UN children's agency.



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Post-Charlie Sheen Diagnosis Spike in Internet Searches Shows Lull in HIV/AIDS Awareness

Post-Charlie Sheen Diagnosis Spike in Internet Searches Shows Lull in HIV/AIDS AwarenessThis past November, actor Charlie Sheen revealed to the public that he is HIV positive. Depending on who you ask, this news was either shocking or not surprising in the slightest. Regardless of what reaction we may have had to the news of his diagnosis, it appears that the prominent Hollywood celebrity coming out as HIV positive has had a…



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More evidence HIV/AIDS fight requires multiple approaches

A nurse tests a blood sample during a free HIV test at a blood tests party, part of a campaign to prevent HIV infection among male same-sex couples, in BangkokBy Andrew M. Seaman A currently available pill could significantly curb new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men in the UK, if prevention and treatment programs are also expanded, researchers say. Wider use of the once-a-day pill, along with HIV blood tests and treatment among very sexually active men who have sex with men, could potentially reduce new cases by about 44 percent by 2020, researchers say. The new research shows that "combination approaches, even if implemented among only a targeted or limited population, can have a larger impact than single interventions alone," said Dr. Jason Kessler, an HIV researcher who was not involved with the new study.



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India adds more cancer, HIV/AIDS drugs to essential medicines list

India has revised its list of essential medicines to add drugs for diseases ranging from cancer and HIV/AIDS to hepatitis C, in a move aimed at making them more affordable. The update to the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) is just the third since it was compiled in 1996. Reuters reported in April that more HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis medicines were likely to be added to list, which is posted on the Central Drug Standard Control Organisation’s website.
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