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Warning of AIDS time bomb in former Soviet Bloc
Sun May 11 2003 21:23:18 ET

Moscow (dpa) - An AIDS time bomb is about to explode in the former Soviet Union as rates of HIV infection spin out of control, two specialists warn.

A million people, mostly injecting drug users, are now thought to be carrying the AIDS virus in eastern Europe and central Asia. All are likely to contract AIDS when their incubation periods come to an end.

At the same time, the virus will spread further into the population through sexual transmission. The result could be a health disaster for the region, warn two French researchers who analysed HIV data in all 27 countries in the former Soviet bloc.

Francoise Hamers and Angela Downs, from the Institut de Veille Sanitaire in St Maurice Cedex, said: ;With current HIV prevalence levels, the East region will soon be confronted with a major AIDS epidemic and thousands of people will need care in countries in which the healthcare system has basically collapsed.''

The countries of central Europe, such as Hungary and Poland, were faring better and had low and stable rates of HIV. But behaviours that promoted HIV transmission were present in all regions, the authors pointed out. Improved measures to prevent further HIV spread were urgently needed.

The HIV crisis in the former Soviet Union had emerged during the socio-economic upheaval that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s. Infection rates in the East were fuelled by a rise in injecting drug abuse at a time when large quantities of opium were flowing in from Afghanistan.

The number of diagnosed HIV infections in the former Soviet Union rose dramatically from 234 in 1994 to 99,499 in 2001, mostly among those injecting drugs. Cases linked to drug injecting had risen from just seven to almost 54,000 over this period, the report said.

Heterosexually transmitted infections had also increased, from fewer than 100 to 4,621. The number of HIV cases among homosexuals and bisexuals, on the other hand, had remained low and stable at about 100 a year. New HIV epidemics were occurring in a number of countries. Rates of new HIV diagnoses in 2001 exceeded 250 per million of population in Estonia, the Russian Federation, and Latvia.

Rates were slightly lower in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Moldova. The Russian Federation alone accounted for 76 per cent of all HIV infections ever reported in the region, said the researchers in the ;Lancet'' medical journal.

They said the booming sex industry and high frequency of other sexually transmitted diseases suggested that prostitution could be important to the future spread of HIV in eastern Europe. This had not been the case in western European countries.

The authors added that the HIV epidemic could lead to more cases of tuberculosis, including drug-resistant strains. They stressed that higher rates of HIV and AIDS in eastern Europe could not be divorced from the social and economic climate in the region.

;Rapidly declining socio-economic conditions and increasing inequity bring a sense of despair and hopelessness that is fertile ground for HIV transmission through increased risk behaviour including prostitution and drug use,'' they said.

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