The number of people estimated to be living with HIV rose by 230,000 in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in 2003, from 1.27 million in 2002 to 1.5 million by the end of 2003, according to figures released today by UNAIDS ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1st.
Fuelled by an epidemic of injection drug use (IDU) among the country's young men, more than 50,000 new cases of HIV infection were diagnosed during 2002 in the Russian Federation alone, making the HIV epidemic in the former USSR one of fastest-growing in the world. And, according to UNAIDS, the Russian Federation’s "serious" epidemic is still in its infancy.
Currently 229,000 people have actually been diagnosed with HIV infection in this physically huge country of 145 million - although it is estimated that the true figure is somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million. Although young males injecting drugs still account for about two-thirds of diagnosed new HIV infections in 2002, women are increasingly at risk of becoming infected largely due to unprotected sex with IDU-infected men, which is consequentially leading to a sharp rise in mother-to-child transmission. UNAIDS are also concerned that there may also be a hidden epidemic of HIV among men who have sex with men, "who are severely stigmatized across the region."
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the HIV epidemic shows no signs of letting up. It is estimated that 30,000 died of HIV-related disease in the past year, an increase from last year's 25,000 lives lost. Ukraine (with 52,000 officially diagnosed by the end of 2002), and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are experiencing a worryingly fast-growing epidemic - also primarily fulled by IDU - with greater than five-fold increases in new diagnoses year-on-year.
HIV continues to penetrate into Belarus, Moldova and Kazakhstan, while Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are experiencing the onset of new HIV epidemics. UNAIDS believes these could be halted if "prevention efforts are targeted at those who are currently most affected - injecting drug users and sex workers - and are supported by prevention work among young people generally. In some instances, even more elementary prevention steps are required - such as screening blood donations for HIV."
The only good news from the region comes from the Central Eastern European countries of Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic where new reported HIV infections have remained relatively low and stable. However, there are worrying reports from around the countries that make up the former Yugloslavia in South Eastern Europe that drug injecting and risky sexual behaviour are on the increase, indicating an urgent need for prevention work.
BBC News: Russia's Aids timebomb
Transatlantic Partners Against AIDS
Organisations working in Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation and Central Asia
UNAIDS. AIDS epidemic update. 14 - 17, 2003.