Russia's AIDS Epidemic: It's America's Fault (of Course)

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is raging out of control in Vladimir Putin's Russia.  It is perhaps the single most devastating hallmark of the demographic crisis that has his nation by the throat.  Instead of contending with it forthrightly and energetically, Putin is ignoring the crisis in favor of a neo-Soviet Cold-War confrontation with the West.

In a 2011 report issued on World AIDS Day, the United Nations stated the stunning reality:  "The Russian Federation and Ukraine account for almost 90% of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region's epidemic. Injecting drug use remains the leading cause of HIV infection in this region, although considerable transmission also occurs to the sexual partners of people who inject drugs."

In 2009, U.N. data had shown that there were just under 1 million people infected with HIV in Russia, with Ukraine adding another 350,000.  But by 2011, the U.N.'s data revealed, Russia's number had soared to as many as 1.3 million, a breathtaking rise of as much as 30% in three years, with only about 5% of those infected receiving antiviral therapy.

The U.N. estimates that as many as 75,000 people per year (that's over 200 per day, more than eight every single hour) are currently perishing in Russia due to AIDS.  A 2010 analysis in Foreign Policy suggested that Russia's problem with the disease might be worse than Africa's.  It's hard to put exact numbers on the problem because the Russian government steadfastly blocks efforts to gather data and lies brazenly about its own results.  The entire demographics community knows that Russia, just like the USSR always did, is lying shamelessly about its AIDS infection rate, just as it misrepresents virtually all demographic and other data which would tend to make it look bad.

But the Russian government itself does admit in just-published data that AIDS mortality and infection both continued to increase dramatically in 2012 -- by a shocking 12% each, ahead of the 10% annual rise Russia saw from 2009 to 2011.  In classic emperor-has-no-clothes style, though, the government still stubbornly insists that it has only 720,000 infections at present -- much less than the U.N. documented three years ago and perhaps half the actual number. 

A 2006 study from the Atlantic Council posited that Russian dishonesty about the AIDS epidemic it faces may be most pernicious within the country's military establishment.  The study revealed that AIDS testing is virtually nonexistent in the Russian military and that since the disease is focused on young men, the military is likely a hotbed for it.  The military likely feels that to acknowledge this problem would make it even more difficult than it already is to press draftees into service.

Honorable individuals within the Russian government itself are forced to admit, however, that they have a serious problem, even if they don't have the nerve to call the Kremlin on the carpet for fudging the numbers.  Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of Russia's AIDS policy department, stated bluntly in response to the most recent wave of negative statistics: "We have no national strategy to fight against AIDS.  We are fighting not against the epidemic itself, but against its consequences.  In the absence of prevention we should expect an increase in the number of new cases."

A ranking published by the CIA based on 2009 data indicated that only 45 countries out of 166 in the world had a worse problem with AIDS than Russia did, and Russia's problem has gotten significantly worse since then.

Because Russia has no strategy to fight AIDS, its response is to lie about and minimize the contours of the problem -- the same "strategy," in other words, that was tried in the USSR. This fundamental breach of trust between the nation's leaders and its citizens is perhaps even more dangerous than the ravages of the disease itself.  If Russian citizens can't trust their government to tell them the truth about the nature of the problem, how can they trust it to solve that, or any, problem?

The U.N. found in 2011 that the AIDS infection rate in Russia's second city, St. Petersburg, had doubled over the past five years, and that well over half of all IV drug-users in that metropolis were infected.  St. Petersburg, famous for being Russia's most West-leaning outpost, is one of the places where one would expect anti-AIDS policy to be most developed.  If it has a problem of this magnitude, it's terrifying to imagine what might be occurring in remote outposts like Volgograd or Irkutsk or Vladivostok.

Russia has lots of other devastating demographic issues.  Smoking, drinking, fire, and highways are four more examples, of many that could be cited, where Russia lags far behind the civilized world in mortality rates.  For this reason, Russians don't rank in the top 125 nations of the world for life expectancy.

But AIDS is the worst of all.  With AIDS, we see the brutal effects of Russia's infamous hostility to homosexuals and other minorities laid bare.  Russia seems to feel that those suffering with AIDS deserve what they get -- perhaps even, in a country dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church, that they are receiving punishment from the Almighty for their sins.  Many Russian politicians talk openly about outlawing homosexual activity, and anti-gay violence is routine.  The fact that many children are impacted by the ravages of AIDS seems not to concern them at all, just as Russia wantonly brutalizes children in its orphanages and impedes the ability of foreigners to adopt them.

As with so many other Russian ills, the regime has fallen back to blaming its favorite bogeyman -- the West, and especially America -- for Russia's AIDS epidemic.  With predictable yet still unfathomable Russian "logic," the Kremlin argues that America is causing Russia's IV drug epidemic by failing to eradicate the opium crop in Afghanistan.  But the protesters who besieged the Russian embassy in London in 2011 for World AIDS day know the truth: it's Russia's own benighted policy that is killing so many of its citizens.

Russia is engaged in a massive military buildup designed to bring back what Putin considers the glory days of the USSR, when the world shook with fear at the prospect of Russian attack.  Putin reveled in Russia's ability to crush tiny Georgia and annex huge chunks of its territory in 2008, and he's eager for more.  To undertake such projects, he must give short shrift to social sinkholes like AIDS; he can't afford either the financial expenditure or the public relations nightmare, especially not as the Russian economy heads into a serious recession.

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