AIDS and the HIV virus are spreading at an alarming pace in Russia, but the government lacks the political will to combat the epidemic that might claim tens of thousands of lives within the next few years, leading experts warned Wednesday.
"Russia remains among countries with the highest rates of the spread of the AIDS epidemic," Natalia Ladnaya, a senior researcher at the Russian Federal AIDS Center, said at a conference of experts from the United States, Europe and Asia.
Russia has officially registered more than 300,000 HIV-positive people, but experts estimate that the real number is closer to 1.5 million — about 2 percent of the adult population, Ladnaya said.
Although the virus used to spread in Russia primarily through intravenous drug use, more than 40 percent of new HIV cases reported this year were young women who were infected through heterosexual intercourse, she said.
Ladnaya warned that the mortality rate from AIDS in Russia is expected to increase significantly, with only 3,000 of the 50,000 HIV-infected people currently receiving the treatment they need.
"In 2005 we won't have the funds to treat more than 10,000 people," Ladnaya said, adding that this estimate included anticipated foreign donations.
But she stressed that even increased funding might not be enough to tackle the epidemic: Russian officials must commit to fighting the spread of the virus. Ladnaya said that state funding for HIV/AIDS research is insufficient and that President Vladimir Putin mentioned AIDS only once in his speeches.
Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the Federal AIDS Center, had warned earlier as many as 1 million people may die of AIDS in Russia by 2008 if the government fails to take action.
"It is only when high-level officials support the fight [against HIV/AIDS] that it becomes effective," Ladnaya said.
Anneli Uuskula, an AIDS expert at Estonia's University of Tartu, said that society as a whole must address the problem.
"We also need the community and non-governmental organizations to take action in this," Uuskula said.
Experts warned that the spread of HIV/AIDS might also lead to higher rates of tuberculosis. Igor Shemyakin of the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology said HIV-positive patients are 10 to 20 times more likely to develop tuberculosis than those with a healthy immune system.
Researchers should pay special attention to multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, when the patient does not react to the most common drugs used to treat the disease, Shemyakin said. In 2003, Russia registered 120,000 new cases of tuberculosis, with another 130,000 people already infected, experts said.