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Russia Crowns HIV Positive Beauty

This story was written by CBS News Moscow bureau chief Beth Knobel.

She's been crowned "Miss Positive" — and not just for having a good attitude. Svetlana Izambayeva, 24, won Russia's first beauty contest for women with HIV.

Svetlana is a college student and hairdresser from the city of Cheboksary in central Russia. She caught the virus during a short-lived summer romance. When she found out she was HIV positive last year, she says she stayed in bed and cried for weeks. Then one day, she had a revelation — that she needed to do something to help herself, and other people with HIV.

"I decided I should go out and talk to young people and tell them about AIDS," she says. "Most Russians think people with AIDS are either homeless people or drug addicts — that they're not even people anymore! They don't know it's normal people like me."

Contest organizers say Svetlana was brave to enter, because Russians with AIDS are often the victims of discrimination. Svetlana has decided to use her crown to become Russia's poster girl for AIDS awareness.

"There can't be any progress until there is a face of the HIV infected and a voice of the HIV infected," she says.

Since she went public with her diagnosis, Svetlana has been speaking in schools and starting up conversations with strangers in an attempt to raise awareness about AIDS. She met with dozens of journalists Thursday to mark World AIDS Day.

"I want people to see me and say, 'Wow, I'd better go do an AIDS test. Look at that normal girl who's HIV positive.' And if they do find out they're positive, they'll remember that they met a normal girl who also has AIDS but who is alive and still able to smile," she says.

The competition was run by the magazine Shagi (Steps) — which is for and about people with HIV and AIDS.

The pageant may be a gimmick, but organizers say it is proof positive that the image of AIDS patients in Russia can be improved.

Russia has one of the fastest growing HIV positive populations in the world, but the fear and suspicion of people with AIDS meet every day has been slow to change.

Russia has about 330,000 officially registered cases of AIDS, but Russia's chief AIDS doctor says the real number infected is probably about three times larger, or about a million people altogether.

An explosion in intravenous drug use and prostitution are causing the virus to spread rapidly, and now heterosexual transmission is also becoming common. The vast majority of victims are under 30 years old.

Dr. Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the Russian Federal Center for the Fight Against AIDS, says that the prevention programs in place are finally starting to slow the spread, albeit very slowly.

"Approximately 100 persons were infected each day [last year]," he says. "The estimate for this year is 90 persons. So 10 percent lower."

Russian president Vladimir Putin has made fighting AIDS a higher priority than it had been, and is increasing funding for AIDS prevention and treatment by at least 20 times starting next year. But Pokrovsky says not everyone in the government understands the economic and health threat posed by the virus.

"There is not enough understanding in our high officials," he says, "and many of them do not understand that it is necessary to struggle against AIDS."

Pokrovsky says he thinks the president does understand the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic in Russia. But how many times has Putin invited Pokrovsky, Russia's chief AIDS doctor, to brief him on the situation? Not once, says Pokrovsky.

"I only see him on TV," the doctor explains.

Pokrovsky says it will be a real sign of progress in Russia when an HIV positive woman can enter and win a real beauty pageant.

But that's not likely to happen anytime soon. AIDS victims in Russia are often ostracized by society, and face discrimination and hostility every day. And that will take more than just a pretty face to change.

Beth Knobel

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