Russia is marking International HIV/AIDS Day with a ceremony to crown a Miss HIV Positive in a beauty pageant aimed to ease the stigma associated with the disease. Russia still faces formidable obstacles in its fight against AIDS.

A 24-year-old woman named Svetlana Izambayeva from southern Siberia was chosen as Russia's Miss HIV Positive in a recent pageant conducted over the internet.

Health officials say the event was held to help Russians see that people with the virus that causes AIDS are not unlike everyone else, and should be treated with care and respect.

But in a sign that all is not well in this regard, Ms. Izambayeva is the only contestant willing to appear at a ceremony to accept her crown.

The young lady told reporters she decided to do this in order to show that she is like anyone else her age, although most Russians do not accept that.

She says the attitude most people have is that those with HIV are either prostitutes or drug addicts, and face certain death.

Ms. Izambayeva is one of more than 340,000 people in Russia who now have the deadly virus, according to official statistics.

Other statistics are equally alarming: Russian health authorities estimate that 100 people in the country contract HIV each day, the fastest rate of increase in Europe. Most new cases are caused by dirty needles used by drug addicts, although about one-third are due to sexual contact.

Until recently Russian authorities seemed to downplay the extent of the situation.

But earlier this year President Vladimir Putin announced a dramatic increase in government funding to cope with the crisis, more than 20 times the current annual level of $4.5 million.

Joost van der Meer heads the Moscow office of the AIDS Foundation East-West. He says these developments are clearly positive.

"History has shown that if the leadership of a country takes a position on HIV-AIDS, and is speaking openly about it, admitting the problem and devoting sufficient funds, that helps to combat the epidemic," he said. "But also they should show their leadership in terms of attitude, that they are not afraid to speak about it, to show that it is a very serious disease but people who have it are just normal people."

This week the U.S. Embassy in Moscow announced $500,000 in new grants from the Agency for International Development to Russian organizations that are dealing with the AIDS crisis.

Despite new efforts, most HIV-positive people say they feel shunned by most ordinary Russians.

Things are especially hard for children with HIV-positive mothers. Officials estimate there are 21,000 such children in Russia. Some are abandoned by their families. Many end up in special orphanages.

Those living with their parents often have a hard time being accepted into schools or day-care centers.

This woman is a pediatrician working in the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg, which has one of the highest rates of increase in the number of HIV-positive people in the country.

She says the problem is growing rapidly, that at least half of the children born with HIV already need treatment and will need constant care as they grow up.

Apart from the official crowning of Miss HIV-Positive in Moscow, World AIDS Day will also be marked by the national broadcast of a documentary film called, HIV: Myths and Realities.

Its producers say this is another way to better inform the public about the disease and the people who are struggling to cope with it.