AIDS spreading in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Experts and activists are warning that AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is on the rise even as a global conference reports progress on other fronts.

An estimated 1.5 million adults and children were living with HIV in the region in 2008, a 66 percent increase from 900,000 in 2001, according to the United Nations.

Early indications show that the number of newly diagnosed HIV cases climbed again last year, with the Russian Federation, Georgia and Belarus reporting an increase in reported cases of 8, 10 and 22 percent, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS.

Of particular concern to experts, policymakers and activists gathered at the AIDS 2010 conference is that those suffering from the deadly disease in the region are often stigmatized, criminalized and denied access to lifesaving treatment.

“Eastern Europe has some of the highest concentrations of HIV among people who inject drugs,” said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS. “This epidemic is inflamed by stigma and punitive laws and won’t stop burning until harm reduction and drug substitution are scaled up.”

Some 3.7 million people in the region inject drugs and are believed to be the main transmitters of the virus.

According to UNICEF, the epidemic is increasingly affecting young people in the region.

In a new report the agency said a third of new HIV infections in the region are in individuals aged 15-24 and that more than 80 percent of those living with HIV are under 30.

Women now account for about 40 percent of new cases, compared to just 24 percent less than a decade ago, it said. And the number of HIV positive pregnancies doubled over the past five years.

But in some parts of the Russian federation, increases of up to 700 percent in overall HIV infection rates have been found since 2006.

Nina Ferencic, author of the report, said AIDS is spreading from drug users to their female partners and then to children.

Often the most vulnerable in society are excluded and discriminated against instead of being protected, she said.

Svetlana Izambaeava, a 29-year-old who is HIV positive and lives in the Russian Federation, said discrimination is a daily reality.

She said that, because she is open about having HIV, her two-year-old daughter was denied a spot in kindergarten.

While her immediate family and friends stood by her when she went public, she said her siblings were forced by their employers to take HIV tests.

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