The first HIV/AIDS conference on Russia, eastern European and Central Asia kicked off in Moscow on Monday, bringing together 1,500 participants from the region to discuss the epidemic. The conference, “Facing the Challenge”, is a milestone in Central Asia’s response in fighting the infection.
“This is the first ever big AIDS conference which brings together scientists, activists and policy-makers from the region,” Henning Mikkelsen, Director for the European Regional Support Team of Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said from Moscow.
UNAIDS is organising the conference in conjunction with the Federal Service of the Russian Federation for Surveillance in Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare, AIDS Infoshare and International AIDS Society (IAS).
“There’s more interest and movement in the region now, which is bound to have an impact throughout the region. And for a good reason – it is indicated that this region has the fastest growing epidemic in the world,“ he added.
Throughout Central Asia, the number of HIV/AIDS cases has risen 20 times in less than a decade. The epidemic continues to grow in eastern Europe and Central Asia, with the number of people living with HIV reaching 1.6 million in 2005. And the virus has claimed almost twice as many lives in 2005 compared with 2003.
But, the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia are still in the early stages of the pandemic. HIV/AIDS is driven largely by the strong increase of intravenous drug users in the region, while returning migrant workers, as well as prostitution, are also spreading the infection into the general population.
“The epidemic is only 10 years old in this region, so it is only now we are starting to see people coming down with AIDS in larger numbers. The first wave of infected people is usually young male intravenous drug users and the second wave their sexual partners.”
“A particular problem for the people coming down with AIDS is that they are dependent on narcotics, so we need to look at how we can improve their life situation so that they can comply with the treatment – we need to scale up access to treatment in this region,” Mikkelsen said.
Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous nation, has the highest recorded number of registered HIV/AIDS cases of the five republics. In 1999, 28 people were diagnosed with the virus – in 2005, 2,016 new infections were reported, bringing the official total to 7,800, almost 280 times the figure in 1999.
Kazakhstan is also experiencing a wave of new HIV cases, with its numbers tripling between 2000 and 2004. In 2004, 30 percent or more of all new reported HIV infections in the sparsely populated country were due to unprotected sex, especially among young people engaging in commercial sex.
“We need to remember that the epidemic is always ahead of us and prevention is something we need to push a lot for. We need to do it in a comprehensive way because AIDS-related and sexual behaviour issues are still taboo and [often] denied here [in the region],” Mikkelsen added.
Young people have become highly vulnerable to HIV infection in the wake of rapid social and economic change in the Central Asian republics. Up to 75 percent of the reported infections between 2000 and 2004 were amongst people younger than 30 years old.
Despite those figures, only a handful of countries have serious programmes in place to combat the virus’s spread.
“Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have a relatively good economic situation because of their oil and natural resources and should be able to invest in it themselves.”
“But there is need for more support for countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. We need to attract more donors, because the epidemic is not going to go away soon, so we need to look at how we can find a long-term sustainable financial basis for them,” the UNAIDS official maintained.
The conference is taking place two weeks ahead of the 2006 High Level Meeting on AIDS in New York, scheduled for 31 May to 2 June.
“I hope people from this region will attend in New York too, to talk about the epidemic here. It’s not just Africa or in Asia, it is also a problem in Central Asia and I hope the conference [in New York] will bring more attention from international society to this region,” Mikkelsen said.
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