Could Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws Feed a New HIV Epidemic?

Health experts are warning of a new strain of HIV that is sweeping Russia. They are also expressing fears that the country’s anti-LGBT crackdown could create dangerous barriers to preventing an epidemic.

Researchers at Novosibirsk’s Koltsovo science research city announced on October 16 that a relatively new and virulent strain of HIV is sweeping Russia and several Eastern Bloc states.

The subtype has been labelled 02_AG/A. Cases of the subtype date back to 2006 when it was first detected in Novosibirsk. Researchers are warning that the subtype is spreading much faster than Russia’s current leading strain of HIV, known as subtype A(I), having been found in patient tests from across Siberia, in Chechnya, Kyrgysztan and Kazakhstan too.

Russia’s HIV Problem is Only Getting Worse

Despite drug use being one of the key factors contributing to HIV/AIDS in Russia and surrounding nations, the region has a tough love approach to drug use. Russia in particular refuses to provide intravenous drug users with needle exchanges because it says that this will only encourage drug use, despite strong evidence that needle exchanges and methadone provisions, the latter of which is illegal in Russia, do work to curtail HIV’s spread.

So serious is the region’s problem with HIV/AIDS that according to the United Nations, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are the only regions in the world where HIV infection is on the rise: the estimated number of people living with HIV in those regions increased from 970,000 to 1.4 million during 2001-2011.

What’s more, in both Eastern Europe and Central Asia, HIV treatment provision remains devastatingly low, with UNAIDS estimating that only 25% of people eligible for HIV treatment are receiving it. The only two countries to buck that trend with 60% treatment coverage are Georgia and Romania.

However, there is evidence to show that Russia’s religious conservative approach to morality — which appears to have become even more stringent in recent years — means that HIV/AIDS awareness is severely lacking not just in Russia itself but for many surrounding nations that tend to follow Russia’s example.

Sex education is also noted as severely lacking in Russia, with little to no uniform policy on how schools should approach important topics like the use of condoms and safe sex practices. In addition, HIV awareness is left to Russia’s severely underfunded HIV programs that, with strict oversight from the government, rely on PSAs that tend to push a “monogamy only” answer to HIV/AIDS with little emphasis placed on prophylactics.

As a result, HIV/AIDS among heterosexuals, and particularly those engaged in sex work or who have sex with sex workers, has increased sharply, with fears that for the first time Russia could see an epidemic driven by heterosexual sex and not drug use.

Russia’s MSM Population: Ignored and At Risk

It might strike one as curious that one group appears missing from the above discussion: men who have sex with men (MSM).

Russia is of course now infamous for its gay propaganda law that seeks to stifle all discussion, promotion and advocacy of gay rights in public. We would expect that, given this level of persecution and stigmatization, MSM as a group would be at an increased risk of high HIV/AIDS prevalence.

Official numbers, however, show that Russia’s MSM population accounts for a relatively small proportion of total HIV cases when compared to, for example, North American nations. Why is this?

Put simply: if Russia’s government is hostile to spending money on sex workers and drug users, it is positively apathetic about its gay population and as a result will not spend money collecting accurate data on HIV prevalence among MSM.

There are, however, small surveys that suggest HIV prevalence is strong among Russia’s MSM population – some surveys suggesting a prevalence of at least 6% — leading HIV/AIDS agencies to suspect there is a deadly threat of an epidemic in Russia that the government is unwilling to acknowledge.

Russia Institutionalized Prejudice Could Be Deadly, Warn Experts

Russia’s outright attack on its gay population and the impact that could have on an already dire HIV/AIDS situation within the country hasn’t gone unnoticed.

On the opening day of the 14th European AIDS Conference in mid-October, the European AIDS Clinical Society issued a statement for the repeal of Russia’s gay propaganda law, saying that the legislation, which bans promotion of “non-tradition sexual orientations” and prevents the dissemination of materials that might “encourage” interest in such, creates barriers to HIV prevention and treatment methods that are damaging to the fight against HIV/AIDS:

“We are concerned that these provisions not only affect basic human rights, but also result in harmful public health policy since they add to the already-existing barriers related to HIV prevention, diagnosis, access and retention in care,” EACS is quoted as saying. “The legal framework in States should do everything to reduce stigmatization.”

To this, Tamas Berezcky, a Hungarian member of the European AIDS Treatment Group, added: “People with HIV can make an impact if they see that they get support from physicians. Look at what happened in Ukraine over the past 18 months, where patients fought for access to treatment and diagnostic tests. Instead of trying to keep people alive using scientific evidence, the Russian government is using church morality. These laws keep people silent, and silence is still death.”

Add to this mix a new and aggressive strain of HIV for which Russia seems woefully unprepared and there are fears that a HIV/AIDS crisis might not be far off, with Russia’s MSM population, its sex workers and drug users only the first casualties.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


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Ashley D.
Ashley D.3 years ago

I'm celibate and, should I ever marry, I'll be just be faithful to the lady I make vows to. By God's grace I contribute towards preventing AIDS.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L3 years ago

It is sad that Putin is acting like Ronald Reagan did when homosexuals started dying from HIV/AIDS; Russia will endure the same agony the USA did because of his actions/inaction. We did not tackle HIV/AIDS until it started showing up in hemophiliacs, tainting our blood supply and showing up in the heterosexual population. It was no longer a 'gay disease'. It took Consent Decrees by the Courts to finally clean up our blood supply and there is still some not in compliance. It is sad when anyone gets HIV/AIDS, but sadder still when innocent ones like married heterosexual woman contact the disease because their husbands have had unsafe sex with someone outside the marriage or the babies that are born with the disease.

It is amazing the ignorance that Putin is showing not only towards this situation but others and the people of Russia will pay a very high price for his politicking with the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia is in a sad state of affairs with corruption running wild. I suggest that the LGBT community boycott the upcoming 2014 Olympics in Sochi since the USA will not.

Linda Tonner
Linda Tonner3 years ago

What astonishes me, is that during the cold war, people were supposed to be secular, except the few old babushka's who went to the cold churches every morning.
There was no state religion, and in fact it was frowned upon, so in that vein, what on earth does Putin use as an excuse for this hatred of homosexuality?

I was under the impression that this awful prejudice was strictly religious, that the god of your choosing is displeased when you don't try to reproduce!
So what's this about?

We all know that so many gays are hugely artistic, being clothing, perfume and home designers, dancers (both ballet and modern) hairdressers, and beauticians, florists, wedding planners, chefs, and much much more. Are they not a HUGE asset to their communities and their country? Is not their talent and drive to succeed a wonderful thing to behold?

This awful prejudice is a heartbreak. I wish I could be famous and outspoken, to help them against these laws. (Thank you Madonna for speaking up!)

B J.
BJ J3 years ago

Thank you for info. Very sad.

Robert Fitzgerald

Conservative religious Christians love to fall back on the idea that HIV or any other natural disaster is "divine retribution" for sins committed by non-Christians. The problem is that God rarely cooperates with Christian theologians. The Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1917 killed more people within 6 months, than did WWI in 3 years. And there were as many Christians who died as anyone else. This pandemic severely deflated Christian dogma allowing for a more liberal scientific agenda to thrive. And we haven't learned a thing. HIV is NOT divine retribution for sexual deviancy. As it goes heterosexual the homosexual argument will be gone. Heterosexual strains of HIV are rampant in Africa and other places. Retribution for sexual deviancy? Or is this retribution for not being Christian?

In addition there are several other pandemics that are affecting third world cultures that have nothing to do with sexuality--good or evil. Where does God stand on these? Droughts are spreading. What is this retribution for? Climate Change? Just deny that!

Perhaps there is some form of divine humor involved where the real sinners are conservative Christians, and these disasters are retribution for not being compassionate, for being filled with hate and judgment.

Tim C.
Tim C3 years ago