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Russian Society Threatened by Government Denial of HIV/AIDS

(Washington, D.C.--March 11, 2005) The Russian government's denial of its country's HIV/AIDS epidemic threatens the growth and vitality of Russian society, according to an expert who has done extensive research on the subject. Murray Feshbach, Senior Scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told an RFE/RL audience in Washington that if Russian government officials do not show more urgency about the AIDS epidemic, the consequences could be devastating for maintaining a viable economy.

As Russia's population is already projected to decline by one-third during the years 2000-2050, Feshbach said the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic will have a significant impact on Russia, because 80 percent of the cases are found in the population cohort that is 30 years old and younger. With an average life expectancy of 10 years for those infected with HIV/AIDS, Feshbach predicted that Russia's economy would also suffer significant losses, as its productive workforce shrinks.

Feshbach also expressed concern about the HIV/AIDS statistics reported by the Russian government, claiming that the rate of infection may be much higher than officially reported. He said that the statistical problems result from the government's lack of concern about this disease, even though HIV/AIDS may be nearing epidemic proportions in Russia. Feshbach noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin has only mentioned AIDS twice in speeches during his term in office, speculating that one reason for the inattention may be that Russia does not want to be considered a "lesser" country.

Another reason Feshbach gave for his own growing doubts about the Russian government's official HIV/AIDS statistics can be found in comparing the Russian statistics to the reported number of HIV/AIDS cases in neighboring Ukraine. Ukraine, with a population less than one-third of Russia's, reports 5,200 AIDS-related deaths, while Russia to date has only reported 800. At the same time, Russia has reported an unusually large increase of tuberculosis deaths, Feshbach said, that may be AIDS-related. According to Feshbach, Russia recorded an increase in tuberculosis deaths from 23,000 in 1998 to almost 30,000 deaths in 2000, while the World Health Organization has estimated the number of tuberculosis cases in Russia for the same period have increased from 120,000 to 180,000.

Feshbach said that greater awareness must be generated among the Russian public about HIV/AIDS. He said the media could potentially play a useful role in educating the public, but a great majority of Russians view them as untrustworthy. Feshbach suggested that Russia needs a "Magic Johnson" [referring to the American basketball player] to raise public awareness of the disease in Russia, break down the stigma of the disease, and educate Russians about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. To hear archived audio for this and other RFE/RL briefings and events, please visit our website at