Aids epidemic aggravated by 'lack of political commitment'
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Russia and Ukraine together account for almost 90 percent of new HIV/AIDS infections in Europe and Central Asia, according a UN report unveiled on World AIDS day. Denis Broun, UNAIDS director for the region, tells France 24 what is behind the trend.
France 24: What are the main reasons for the high figures in Ukraine and Russia?
Dr. Denis Broun: First, the recent explosion of AIDS infections in the two countries is driven by needle injections among a growing number drug users. Heroine from Afghanistan is readily available. Between 1.5 and 2 million people are injecting drugs in these two countries. Secondly, prevention programmes are inadequate or not in place. In Russia needle exchange and oral programme of methadone substitution is not legal. The combination of highly available drugs and low level of prevention programmes is fatal for Russia and the Ukraine.
Now we are seeing a growing trend in sexual transmission as many drug users have wives and girlfriends. Sexual transmission now accounts for more than 50 percent of new AIDS/HIV cases in Ukraine.
F24: Is there an awareness of the scope of the problem among the public?
The Russian media has proven to be a strong partner for us.
D.B.: There is a lot of media interest, especially today. In Russia newspapers, television stations and radio programmes are doing special features and shows today. But public debate is not where it needs to be, and this is due to the lack of government involvement. Government is not doing enough. We’ve seen how government commitment in places like South Africa and Ethiopia can turn around the epidemic. This is still missing in Russia and Ukraine. The governments of these countries are hoping civil society will fill the gap. Money is not the problem; the problem is a deficit of government commitment.
F24: What is UNAIDS’ short-term strategy for these countries?
D.B.: Political advocacy: we are trying to mobilise the government. This is the only place in the world where the epidemic is growing. We can intervene at the municipal level, and do, but it’s only when the president, the prime minister or the parliament of a country comes forward with the issue that real change can take shape. We are also helping organisations collect accurate statistics and data. The fight against AIDS only works if the epidemic can be properly documented. Accurate data informs and drives policy. We are also involved in human rights issues. When homosexuality and drug use is dealt with as criminal acts, this puts high-risk groups in even greater danger.
For World AIDS day we awarded prizes to the best newspaper articles and television reporting on AIDS in the Russian press. There were some great entries, the Russian media has proven to be a strong partner for us, and it is responsible for keeping the issue alive.