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.