Russian students, some wearing matching shirts and hats, gathered with a few celebrities in central Moscow Tuesday for what could have been mistaken for a commercial promotion. But they each slowly approached a nurse and had a needle jabbed into them to get tested for HIV.
The event was organized by Russia's Ministry of Health for World AIDS Day as part of efforts to encourage HIV testing and create awareness. Unlike many other European countries, where HIV infection rates have steadied or even declined, Russia faces a rapidly growing number of infections, with over half of them transmitted through injection drug use.
While even official estimates vary, Russia's Interfax news agency quotes the country's Federal Center on AIDS, saying 986,657 Russians were HIV-positive as of November 23. Of these, 73,777 are new infections acquired so far this year, an increase of 12 percent over the same period last year.
At the current rate, Russia will declare 1 million HIV infections before the end of the year.
Watch related video:
Speaking at the HIV testing event Tuesday, Russia's Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said the significance of Russia's HIV problem is growing. She said over 750,000 HIV patients were officially registered, 92,500 of them in 2014 alone.
"This happens because our public is uninformed about the infection," she said.
In late October, Russia doubled its budget for HIV prevention and treatment to $600 million, with prevention focused on education and testing.
More than half of HIV infections in Russia are spread through injecting drugs, but Russian officials refuse to support clean needle and opiate substitution programs, despite their proven effectiveness and endorsement by the World Health Organization.
"Those seem to me two absolutely necessary measures that may reverse the trend among the drug addicts in Russia," said Maxim Malyshev with the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, a private group that works to stop the spread of HIV among injection drug addicts by handing out clean needles. "Without them,” he told VOA in May, “all the attempts will be futile."
Although clean needle programs are not illegal, Russian authorities oppose supporting them out of concern they enable drug addiction. Substitution programs like methadone are outlawed.
After Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March 2014, it ended methadone treatment there. As a result, dozens of drug addicts overdosed or committed suicide.
"In Russia, specialists who treat drug addicts do not consider methadone therapy effective, because here one drug is replaced with another one," Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of Russia's AIDS Center, told VOA in May. "But they don't consider that we speak today about preventive measures of stopping HIV infection."
Anti-retroviral drug access limited
Russia's healthcare system provides treatment for most HIV sufferers, but about 30 percent of those who need of anti-retroviral drugs do not have access, partly because of a decline in international funding.
Russian AIDS activists say many injection drug users, worried about being treated as criminals, also fail to register for treatment or maintain medication regimens.
Russia's Federal AIDS Center says there were 205,538 HIV-related deaths since the country's first case in 1987, reports Interfax. Russia's federal body on consumer rights and well-being says 25,000 Russians are dying every year.
While the majority have been drug addicts, Russia's HIV rate was considered a marginal problem. But as Russia's infections have spread, sexual transmission is becoming more of a concern.
"Over the last years, the amount of infection through sexual contact has changed," said Skvortsova. "In heterosexual relations, from man to woman and vice versa, now this is more than 40 percent. This poses a giant threat to the population."
Mark Grinberg contributed to this report.