As the Kremlin struggles with a weakening economy, Russia's HIV crisis has reached a gloomy milestone: The number of HIV-positive Russians has passed the 1 million mark, according to the Russian Federal AIDS Center. Just 10 years ago, the number of reported HIV cases in the country was only 170,000. The number of HIV cases is growing at an accelerating pace, increasing by 12 percent in 2014 compared with 10 percent in 2013. The head of the country's Federal AIDS Center estimates that 2 million Russians will be HIV-positive in four years. These are only the officially registered cases — the true number is probably much higher.
Initially, most of Russia's new HIV and AIDS cases were drug users. However, during the past decade, more HIV infections in Russia have been transmitted sexually; 53 percent of new HIV cases in the country are attributed to drug injections, and 42 percent are sexually transmitted. And, though HIV and AIDS are a countrywide problem, more than half the cases are concentrated in just 10 of Russia's 83 regions. Four other regions (Tomsk, Altai, Novosibirsk and Perm) are catching up, however. These regions vary in wealth, economic activity and education, making it difficult to detect the trends driving new cases.
Many of the Kremlin's laws and practices are abetting the rapid spread of HIV across Russia. Russian society stigmatizes HIV. As such, conservative factions in the government and in the Russian Orthodox Church have convinced the Kremlin to maintain a ban on sexual education and HIV prevention programs in schools and universities. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has also banned opiate substitution treatments, such as the use of methadone or buprenorphine. Together, these factors have left only 3 percent of Russia's HIV-positive population with access to antiretroviral drugs, according to the World Health Organization.
Russia's main problem is that it has waited so long to address its HIV epidemic. When the United States began addressing the rapidly growing number of HIV and AIDS cases, it took nearly two decades to reach a point where medicine and treatments could keep the disease at bay. Even if Russia were to employ the amount of financial, educational and medical resources the United States has, HIV would still hurt Russia and its population in the coming decades.