More than 900,000 people in Russia live with the disease, with ten new cases diagnosed every hour, according to figures from the health ministry. And although the number of newly-diagnosed and AIDS-related deaths continue shrinking worldwide, the opposite is happening in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with Russia accounting for almost two thirds of new contractions in the region.
However, a little more than 37 percent of those diagnosed with HIV had antiretroviral treatment in 2015, government data show, with the ministry saying this was due to the reluctance of infected persons to avail themselves of medical treatment, as well as lack of financing for medication programs and HIV tests.
“For quite a long while, for five years, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the HIV/AIDS issue. There has not been enough funding,” director of the Federal HIV Research and Prevention Center, Vadim Pokrovsky, told RT.
Despite government’s best efforts to counter the spread of HIV, the situation remains “tense,” state consumer rights agency Rospotrebnadzor said.
To make matters worse, “AIDS denialists are clearly ahead of us,” with their communities gaining popularity on Russian social networks, blogs and elsewhere online, Pokrovsky noted. “And that’s really dangerous. If you refuse therapy, an early death is guaranteed,” he added.
Although treatment can suppress HIV/AIDS and stop its progression, denialists question its very existence, calling it “the greatest conspiracy of the 20th century,” according to dissenting groups – with more than 17,000 followers – on Russian social networking site VKontakte.
A former HIV denialist spoke to RT after the decision to refuse therapy almost cost her life. “It felt like it was happening in a fog... As if life had stopped. My devastated health and then that diagnosis... It made me feel I had no future,” the woman, who asked to be called Elena, said, recalling the moment when she learnt of her diagnosis.
During her treatment, however, she met a man, named Vadim, who convinced her to join the dissident movement and give up medication. “I remember what the doctor said: ‘Later on you'll just crawl back to us’,” Elena said, adding she couldn’t remember how she ended up with such a choice. “Now I would never decide to do that.”
Elena was forced to seek medical treatment, eventually, following a couple of years of HIV treatment denial – after she was diagnosed with cancer. While Elena “realized that it was all because of the virus,” it was too late for the man who recruited her in the nonconformist camp who died of lymphoma. “He’d admitted that he was wrong. He wrote to me, saying he'd been a fool,” she said.
There were more than 80 daily deaths as a result of HIV in the first 10 months of 2017, said Rospotrebnadzor. With cases making headlines in the Russian media, some children too apparently fell victim to their parents’ choice of denying the virus as well as treatment. In August, a 10-year-old HIV-positive girl died in St. Petersburg after her adopted parents declined therapy “in every way possible.” The couple reportedly believe the disease to be “a myth invented by greedy pharmaceutical companies.”