HIV/AIDS Rates Rising in Former Soviet Union

By Chelsea Bailey | August 15, 2013

A stamp commemorating World AIDS Day in Russia in 1993. According to UNAIDS, the rate of new HIV/AIDS infections in Eastern Europe has risen over the last ten years.

Wikimedia

An alarming increase in new HIV infections in the former Soviet Union has experts scrambling for answers. According to UNAIDS, the estimated number of people living with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia increased by 44 percent between 2001- 2011. Comparatively, sub-Saharan Africa saw a 25 percent decline in new infections during the same period.

UNAIDS Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia Dr. Jean-Elie Malkin, partially attributes the increase in HIV to high rates of intravenous drug users and migration across borders.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Malkin described Russia and the Ukraine as the epicenter for the region’s AIDS epidemic. 

“Russia and Ukraine together represent more or less 90 percent of the epidemic in the entire region. But this increasing epidemic is seen in all countries of the region,” he said. 

He added that this influx in new HIV/AIDS infections is taxing already struggling health care systems. UNAIDS estimates that only a quarter of eligible patients living with HIV are receiving treatment.

Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all citizens were entitled to universal health care under the Soviet Constitution. But today, many independent Soviet countries cannot financially fulfill this mandate, and the high cost of health care prevents patients from seeking treatment.

In an interview with Forbes, post-Soviet health systems expert Dr. George Gotsadz said that weak health systems in the region are exacerbating the problem.

“The Soviet Union managed to achieve significant health gains for its nations under its health care system. But after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the independent post-Soviet states failed to sustain and expand these achievements,” Gotsadz said. “As a result, the health of these nations deteriorated.”

At the G20 Civil Summit in Moscow this June, the Russian government launched a U.S. $16 million “Regional Cooperation Program for Technical Assistance for HIV” initiative.  The program will operate in Russia,  Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan from 2013-2015. It will focus on strengthening health systems and ensuring better surveillance of HIV.

Despite the challenges, Dr. Malkin says that it’s important to remember that the landscape of HIV in today’s Eastern Europe mirrors that of sub-Saharan Africa a decade ago. There are reasons for hope.

To learn more about how the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation is fighting HIV, click here.

Chelsea Bailey is Communications Assistant for the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.