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World AIDS Day Finds Russia, Former Soviet Union in Grips of Spiraling Epidemic


United Nations health officials say Russia and other nations of the former Soviet bloc are confronting the world's fastest-growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS. One decade ago, the countries of the former Soviet bloc had some of the lowest infection rates of HIV, the virus that causes the deadly AIDS disease.

Now, health officials say rates have skyrocketed to such an extent that the region leads the world in what has become an AIDS epidemic.

The organization that monitors the situation, UN/AIDS, estimates up to 1.8 million people in the region have the virus - approximately one percent of the population.

And, the rate of increase is enormous, with hundreds of thousands of people infected each year.

Most infections come from spiraling intravenous drug use by male addicts using contaminated needles.

But that is changing. Officials say women now account for about one-third of Russian HIV infections, which means a sharp rise in the number of mothers who pass the virus on to their newborn babies.

Officials say that governments still do not understand the true scope of the problem or its long-term impact on social and economic development.

Dr. Akram Eltom is the Russia program coordinator for the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS program.

He says the aim is to work with the government to overcome misunderstandings about the problem and improve prevention.

"We believe advocacy is a gradual effort. We are here to support the government," he said. "To overcome, whether it is political convictions, social considerations, or economic ones, it will be a gradual effort."

Although there are some dire predictions of greatly-increasing numbers of AIDS deaths in Russia within just a few years, the federal allocation to fight the disease is only $4.5 million a year.

Despite low funding, many prevention programs are in place. These include "harm reduction" measures such as needle exchange programs to keep drug addicts from sharing or using infected needles.

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