UNICEF: HIV-AIDS, Iodine Deficiency Rate Reach Alarming Proportions in Ukraine - 2004-04-25

The United Nations Children's Fund warns twin epidemics of HIV-AIDS and iodine deficiency in Ukraine are in danger of spiraling out of control. UNICEF says that immediate, effective action by the Ukrainian government, with support from the international community, is needed to stem these crises.

UNICEF says Ukraine stands on the threshold of a nationwide HIV-AIDS epidemic. The UNICEF representative in Ukraine, Jeremy Hartley, says this is the fastest rate of HIV growth in Europe. He notes the epidemic is largely fueled by injecting drug use. But he also says sexual transmission of HIV is skyrocketing and that this is very worrisome.

"As injecting drug users infect those who are non-injecting drug users, so that gets passed on and the rate of increase of infection among the general population takes place," he said.

UNICEF figures show HIV infections through sexual transmission in Ukraine have risen from 11 percent of cases in 1997 to 29 percent of cases in 2002. It warns that without effective action, the number of cases could reach nearly 1.5 million by 2010.

UNICEF says Ukraine actually has a good program for preventing mother-to-child transmission. It says pregnant women are tested for HIV and those who are infected receive drugs, which prevent the virus from spreading to the unborn child.

It says similar prevention programs do not exist for injecting drug users, who are shunned by society. It says this just drives the problem underground.

UNICEF says children in Ukraine also suffer from ill health, exacerbated by poor nutrition. They are particularly vulnerable to iodine deficiency.

One UNICEF nutritional expert, Arnold Timmer, says Ukraine's soil lacks natural iodine, so less than 21 percent of the population consumes the iodized salt that would protect them against iodine deficiency, a leading cause of preventable mental retardation.

"In the Ukraine, we have identified certain areas where mild iodine deficiency exists and severe iodine deficiency exists and the worst cases like goiter and large thyroid glands and people who actually are cretins, who are deaf and dumb, who do not have a normal growth - those still exist in those areas," said Mr. Timmer.

Ukraine is one of the largest salt producers and exporters in the region. Mr. Timmer says there would be substantial benefits for Ukraine and neighboring countries were it to iodize its salt.

He says just one teaspoon of iodine, consumed during the course of an entire lifetime, is enough to keep iodine deficiency and mental retardation at bay.

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