October 28, 2009 / 9:07 PM / 8 years ago

Russia must legalise methadone to stop HIV-experts

* Russia has 1 million HIV-positive people-experts

* Russia not considering methadone treatment

By Amie Ferris-Rotman

MOSCOW, Oct 28 (Reuters) - Russia must legalise methadone to stop an AIDS epidemic from spreading, with at least one million Russians infected with HIV, experts warned on Wednesday.

At a three-day AIDS conference in Moscow, experts said HIV cases in Russia have doubled over the past eight years, mainly driven by drug users -- who account for up to 80 percent of the cases -- injecting heroin from nearby Afghanistan.

But they warned that Russia’s epidemic will spread rapidly beyond drug users to the general population of 143 million through sexual activity unless preventative steps are taken.

"Other regions of the world do have increasing epidemics, but all other regions have countries that are plateauing or even controlling their epidemic, even in parts of Africa. Sadly, this is not the case here," Robin Gorna, the executive director of the International Aids Society (IAS), told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.

IAS says there are 1.5 million people with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, two thirds of them in Russia.

The government says there are just over 500,000 registered cases in Russia.

Methadone, which is administered orally and widely used to treat opiate addiction, is illegal in Russia.

"It is a great concern for us that methadone is not being considered in Russia as it is the most effective treatment to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS," Gorna said. "We are encouraging the government to look at methadone programmes"

But Russia’s chief sanitary official Gennady Onishchenko was dismissive of methadone treatment. "There is no proof it works," he said. "It is nothing but another drug."

Russia is the world’s top consumer of Afghan heroin. Last month President Dmitry Medvedev warned that high drug use amongst the country’s youth was a threat to national security.

Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, said AIDS still carried heavy stigma in Russia and the government needed to address this.

"Something in society is malfunctioning and it is unable to talk aloud about weaknesses," he said.

Kazatchkine also said many addicts in Russia are too afraid of getting harassed by police to get tested for HIV.

Gorna praised the Russian government for putting aside 9 billion roubles ($310 million) this year for treatment, with that sum set to more than double to 19 billion roubles by 2011.

More than 33 million people across the world are infected with the virus, the United Nations said in September.

Russia’s Onishchenko said 67,000 are receiving treatment at present, and that will rise to 107,000 people by 2011.

(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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