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New HIV Center, Hotline Set Up to Offer Help

The Botkin Infectious Disease Hospital on Thursday opened a state-funded consultancy center for HIV-positive people and their relatives in an effort to overcome the social isolation associated with the disease and provide patients with timely and adequate treatment.

Two telephone hotlines have also been launched for urgent inquiries.

Vladimir Zholobov, first deputy head of City Hall’s Health Committee, that supports the program, said HIV prevention is one of the top priorities for the Russian state, and the city of St. Petersburg in particular.

“Only half of HIV-positive patients are officially registered and therefore have access to treatment,” he said. “It is crucially important to get the infected people get in touch with the doctors. The state has enough money to provide medicines for everyone, so motivating them to get in contact is our primary goal, and hotlines and consultancy centers are meant to serve it.”

The center will offer medical aid, advice and group theraphy as well as individual sessions with psychologists and psychotherapists.

The founders of the new service are hoping the initiative will help to increase the quality, scale and availability of health and social services for HIV-positive people and high-risk groups, including intravenous drug users, prostitutes and prisoners serving terms in Russia’s jails and camps.

Since 2002, between 3,000 and 4,500 new cases have been registered annually in St. Petersburg. According to the St. Petersburg City Center for AIDS Prevention, at least 44,000 HIV-positive people are registered in town in 2007.

Experts predict that the virus could cut the Russian population by a third in the next fifty years but stereotypes about the disease persist in Russia despite all efforts to raise public awareness.

The social isolation of HIV-positive people remains an acute problem. The children of HIV-positive parents, even if they are HIV-negative themselves, are routinely denied access to many public facilities such as swimming pools, sports clubs or health centers, said Yevgeny Voronin, chief doctor with the Republican Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Ust-Izhora, outside St. Petersburg.

The adoption of an HIV-positive child in Russia is rare. During the 19 years which have passed since the first HIV cases were registered in Russia, only five HIV-positive children have been adopted, said Voronin. Of the five adopted HIV-positive children, only one baby was adopted by a Russian, while the other four were adopted by foreigners, he added.

“Society is still poorly informed about the disease,” Voronin said. “People are driven by fear that is based on prejudice.”

“The degree of discrimination is horrendous, even the doctors who inform you about the diagnosis or are supposed to give you therapy often act in the most unpleasant way,” said Alexander Volgin, head of the Northwestern branch of the Russian Coordination Council for HIV-Positive people. “When I was diagnosed with HIV in 2000, nobody even told me about the existence of therapy.”

Volgin said doctors are often guilty of the same prejudices.

“It is not uncommon for an ambulance to refuse to help HIV-positive people,” he said. “When they arrive on the scene and find out a patient has HIV, not all of them stay and provide medical assistance.”

Russia is confronted with an HIV/AIDS epidemic. Although state statistics suggest that only 330,000 people in Russia are infected, experts believe that the figures have already passed one million. When one percent of the population has been infected, it is almost impossible to reverse the build-up of the epidemic, experts warn.

Russia and Ukraine are reported to have the highest growth rates of HIV infection in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa. In Moscow, up to 1,000 new cases are registered every week. Eighty percent of those infected are aged between 18 and 30 years old.

The World Health Organization offers a universal strategy for combating HIV/AIDS, but says each country has to develop an individually designed policy to tackle the epidemic. At a conference this week in Geneva, Switzerland, the WHO and UNAIDS recommended that male circumcision now be recognized as an additional important intervention to reduce the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men.

Evidence collected from three different trials in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa showed that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60 percent.

Currently, approximately 665 million men, or 30 percent of men worldwide, are estimated to be circumcised.

The new Botkin Hospital HIV information hotline numbers are: 8 921 896 5549 and 8 921 896 4539.


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