Criminalising drug addiction in Russia is fuelling the spread of
HIV, according to British development agency Tearfund, whose local
church partners work at the frontline of the country’s HIV epidemic.

The HIV epidemic in Central Asia and Eastern Europe – which is
expanding faster than any other region in the world – comes under the
spotlight at a major international AIDS conference in Vienna this week,
AIDS2010.

Drug use and HIV is the focus of The Vienna Declaration, the official
statement of AIDS 2010, initiated by several of the world’s leading HIV
and drug policy bodies.

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, by sharing infecting
needles and syringes. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, one in three new
HIV cases occurs in drug users.

Galia Kutranova, Tearfund’s Russia Manager says, “Helping people
overcome drug addiction is critical to preventing the spread of HIV in
Russia. But it’s an uphill task. 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.

She adds, “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.

Kostya Lyubimov, a former drug addict who now runs a drug
rehabilitation centre in Russia, supported by Tearfund, says,
“Injecting drug users are the most vulnerable to HIV infection in
Russia. Yet they are some of the most marginalised people in our
society. Treating their addiction as a crime makes them harder to reach
and can fuel the spread of HIV.”

Drug use has spiralled in the region since the collapse of communism
and is fuelled by the plentiful supply from Afghanistan, poor drug
awareness and an increasing sense of despair about the country’s
outlook.

Official estimates report that there are 500,000 drug users in Russia
but unofficial estimates place it between three and six million out of
a population of 140 million.

Recalling his own journey through addiction, Kostya Lyubimov says, “I
had been using drugs for 7 years and had a spell in jail. I was on the
brink of death and my family didn’t believe I could overcome my
addiction. I had no hope for my life. When I started rehab I was so
surprised to find people who had overcome their addiction. I had never
come across that before.”

A recent Tearfund report on HIV and drug use in Russia, Voices from the
Margins, finds that local protestant churches groups are bridging the
gap in care for those most vulnerable to HIV, by providing the bulk of
residential drug rehabilitation and home palliative care in Kaliningrad
and Sverdlovsk.

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