A spokesperson in Russia for the British evangelical Christian development agency Tearfund says that criminalising drug users and addiction in the country is fuelling the spread of HIV.
The NGO's message is based on close conversations and practical links with local church partners working at the frontline of Russia’s worsening HIV epidemic.
A recent Tearfund report on HIV and drug use in Russia, entitled Voices from the Margins, suggests that local Protestant church groups are bridging the gap in formal care for those most vulnerable to HIV, by providing the bulk of residential drug rehabilitation and home palliative support in Kalningrad and Sverdolvsk.
The HIV epidemic in Central Asia and Eastern Europe is expanding faster than any other region in the world, say analysts.
The situation in Russia and elsewhere is being highlighted at the major international AIDS 2010 conference in Vienna, Austria, taking place this week.
The Vienna Declaration, the official statement of AIDS 2010, initiated by several of the world’s leading HIV and drug policy bodies, is focusing especially on drug use, control and the spread of HIV infection.
The Declaration states: “The criminalisation of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences.”
One in 100 Russians are currently living with HIV, with an estimated 70 per cent becoming infected through drug use, as a result of sharing infecting needles and syringes.
Outside sub-Saharan Africa and some areas of South Africa in particular, one in three new HIV cases across the world occurs in relation to existing and new drug users.
Galia Kutranova, Tearfund’s Russia manager, commented recently: “Helping people overcome drug addiction is critical to preventing the spread of HIV in Russia. But it’s an uphill task."
Kutranova continued: "Stigma and fear is rife among those facing the double whammy of drug addiction and HIV. Few seek help, for fear of being arrested for their addiction or shunned for their HIV status."
“Our experience in Russia is that treating drug addiction as a crime undermines successful treatment and fuels the spread of HIV. Drug addiction is a disease, not a crime and must be treated as such," said the Tearfund manager.
Drug use has spiralled in the region since the collapse of communism. It is fuelled by the plentiful supply from Afghanistan, poor drug awareness, criminality, unfettered free markets, and an increasing sense of despair about the country’s future in the context of worsening social and economic conditions.
Official statistics through the UN suggest that there are 500,000 drug users in Russia. However, unofficial estimates place the figure at between 3 and 6 million out of a total population of 140 million.
More on Tearfund: www.tearfund.org