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HIV Rates Stun Two Nations

The virus that causes AIDS is spreading quickly in Moscow, Russia, and in the Central African Republic, health officials from both countries said this week.

According to the Health Ministry of Russia, increased drug use, prostitution and a lack of public awareness and prevention programs have lead to the spread of the virus in Moscow.

There were 4,085 HIV cases registered in the Moscow region as of Wednesday, the highest number for any Russian region, according to Health Ministry figures. In the first six months of this year, 4,867 new HIV cases were registered in Russia -- more than double the number in the same period in 1998.

Mikhail Narkevich, head of the Health Ministry's AIDS department, said up to 70 percent of all new cases are registered in the Russian capital.

Poverty in Russia's rural areas is pushing scores of young women to move to Moscow to work as prostitutes -- and few of them seem concerned about the risk of AIDS. Drugs also are easily obtained on the streets and relatively cheap, and intravenous drug use has soared.

"Moscow still has no consistent AIDS prevention program, which is required by both the federal and the local legislation," Narkevich said.

Russia is broke, and AIDS prevention programs are taking a back seat to problems that appear more pressing, such as mass poverty, crime and Russia's huge foreign debts.

Vadim Pokrovsky, president of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, said previously lower HIV case figures seemed to have kept Russians from getting particularly worried. But now, he said, "utmost efforts" are needed to combat what he described as an epidemic.

Nationwide, 15,819 HIV-positive patients were registered as of Wednesday, according to the Health Ministry. The government's figures recorded 377 patients who developed full-blown AIDS and 406 people, including 101 children, who died of the disease.

In the Central African Republic, officials said Friday that one in every five people and nearly half of all pregnant mothers in this nation are infected with the HIV virus.

Health Minister Prosper Timossa said the infection-rate was highest in two towns where French soldiers and other foreign peacekeeping troops are based near prostitutes -- the western town of Bour and the central city of Bambari. In these towns, the AIDS rate is believed as high as 50 percent.

Until last year, France had military bases in both towns to maintain civil order in the country. The French troops have since been largely replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force made up mainly of African troops.

"Above all, the prevalence in Central African Republic of this pandemic means that our country has one of the highest rates of infection in Africa and the world," Timossa said.

Timossa said the disease, which recently topped malaria as the world's biggest killer, threatens the economy and future livelihood of Central African Republic and could eventually kill one-quarter of its 3.2 milion citizens.

About 21 percent of young women between 15 and 21 are infected, as are 40 percent of pregnant women at hospitals around the country. Hospitals routinely test all patients for the disease.

Health authorities say the rapidly spreading disease means that nearly nine out of 10 patients in the country's hospitals test positive for HIV, the AIDS-causing virus.

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