City To Test New HIV Program
PreventAIDS, a new program aimed at combating the spread of HIV in the city by educating and raising awareness among vulnerable groups, run jointly by the U.S. non-profit organization Population Services International (PSI) and City Hall, was launched this week.
Human rights organizations are hoping the project will also help to increase the quality, scale and availability of health and social services for HIV-positive locals and high-risk groups.
PreventAIDS is scheduled to run for three years in selected clinics and social centers in the Kirovsky, Krasnogvardeisky and Vyborgsky districts, where staff will try to establish a network between medical, legal and social services that can potentially be of help to the target groups. If proved efficient, the system will be put forward for adoption in other districts.
Aza Rakhmanova, the chief HIV and AIDS specialist on City Hall’s Health Committee, said senior doctors in many state-funded district clinics turn a blind eye to the problem, refusing to assign staff or time for prevention programs for consultancy for HIV positive patients. Almost no clinics have staff specifically dedicated to dealing with these patients or those exposed to a high risk of getting infected, she added.
This year, Russia has increased funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs from 130 million rubles ($4.5 million) in 2004 — enough to treat just 600 patients — to 3 billion rubles ($140 million). In January, City Hall announced that if the state funding is insufficient, local authorities will provide extra cash and officials promised that all locals diagnosed as being HIV-positive will receive treatment.
But statistics show that most patients don’t rely on the state and don’t expect any help. According to the St. Petersburg Center For HIV Prevention, just half of the 30,000 HIV-positive locals officially registered by City Hall, actually contact the center, or similar organizations for any assistance.
Even when serious symptoms occur, some people prefer not to deal with doctors.
“Very recently, a fifty-year-old woman was found to be HIV-positive only by chance, during a post-mortem examination at the Botkin hospital,” Rakhmanova said. “She died from cryptococcal encephalitis, which is a perfectly curable infection. Had she contacted the doctors in time, she would have lived.”
Russians who are HIV-positive are afraid of the stigma attached to the virus: a number of human rights groups have reported cases of ambulance or hospital doctors refusing to provide help to HIV-positive patients and of employers firing staff and schools rejecting pupils solely on the grounds of their diagnosis, not to mention hostile attitudes from neighbors.
Yuliana Davydova, director of the St. Petersburg branch of PSI, said a comprehensive approach is crucial to the problem. “As part of the program, we will monitor the quality of medical or social assistance, and we are hoping to see an increase in contacts,” she said. “Getting help must become a much easier process, otherwise the trust will be hard to build.”
The initiative is part of a large project covering, apart from St. Petersburg, the Samara, Saratov and Orenburg regions.
Yelena Arutyunova, head of PSI-Russia, said target groups, which include drug-users, prostitutes and socially deprived youths will be contacted by outreach workers to provide them with useful tips and establish a permanent contact. “Our workers will look out for the most susceptible groups in their known hangouts: clubs, hotels, student hostels, private apartments or basements,” she said.
Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief sanitary doctor, said at a recent news conference that strategies for limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS will be one of the topics at the forthcoming G8 summit in St. Petersburg in July.
In 2005, just 68 locals received antiretroviral therapy but this year the treatment is being given to almost one thousand patients, Onishchenko said.