HIV denial movement fuels Russian epidemic

Moscow (AFP) - Fewer than half of Russians with HIV are taking antiretroviral drugs, in part because of a conspiracy theory that the AIDS-causing virus is a myth invented by the West, officials and activists say.

While AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections are falling across the globe, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia statistics grow more alarming by the year.

According to official figures, 80 people died daily from AIDS-related issues in Russia in the first six months of 2017, up from about 50 daily deaths in 2016.

Over 900,000 Russians are living with HIV today, with 10 new cases every hour, figures published by the government say.

But fewer than half are getting the medication that could help them lead a normal life and prevent them from passing on the virus.

Many decline to take the drugs voluntarily after reading online that HIV is a myth, officials said.

Many of those without therapy "don't want treatment for various reasons", said pro-Kremlin lawmaker Alexander Petrov, calling on NGOs to help "reach out to those who do not believe (that HIV exists)".

Without treatment, an HIV positive individual can continue spreading the virus for many years and eventually die from AIDS.

While it is not clear how many of those not receiving treatment are denialists and how many are victims of drug shortages, cases of denying treatment to children have especially irked authorities.

"It's unacceptable in our day and age that children are dying while a range of treatment is available," said Alexey Yakovlev, head doctor of the Botkin hospital in Saint-Petersburg, where a 10-year-old girl died in August after her religious parents repeatedly refused to treat her.

But it is difficult to fight fake claims in the age of the internet, when a Google search leads desperate people straight to communities that offer comfortable untruths, activists say.

Denialism existed in the West and Africa, but globally "died as an effective force", according to the website AIDSTruth which battled the phenomenon for years before declaring its work "done" in 2015.

- Love of conspiracy theories -

In Russia, UNAIDS helped close down a denialist community on the popular Odnoklassniki network, but it simply moved to a different platform, said Vinay Saldanha, Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia for UNAIDS.

"It's unacceptable that there are (HIV denialist) forums and chats in Russia tolerated by certain platforms," he said. "They are like rats, they ran to a different place and continued propagating their ideas," he said.

AFP found several denialist groups on the VK social network, the Russian Facebook equivalent, each with thousands of followers.

When asked by AFP why the group thinks HIV does not exist, the administrator of one of the communities said "because it doesn't", followed by a string of obscenities.

One of the groups calls HIV "the greatest myth of the 20th century", instructs people how to deny treatment, and refers to HIV drugs as poison and doctors as killers working to enrich pharmaceutical companies.

"One goal of the AIDS myth is decreasing the planet's population to two billion by establishing total control" through vaccinations, a top ideologue of dissident views Olga Kovekh told a local media outlet last month.

Kovekh is employed as a physician in a clinic in Volgograd.

Part of why such eccentric ideas catch on is "Russians' love of conspiracy theories" and growing anti-Western rhetoric, said Yelena Dolzhenko, who works at Moscow-based AIDS prevention centre, the SPID.Tsentr foundation.

"On TV they are talking about how Russia is surrounded by enemies and that we must fight everybody," she said, a perfect environment for planting ideas about a Western AIDS conspiracy.

- 'Druggies and American gays' -

The phenomenon of denialism is also growing because the system of HIV centres in Russia is underfunded: doctors pressed for time lack the empathy to guide patients to legitimate support groups, said Yekaterina Zinger, director of the Svecha foundation in Saint-Petersburg.

"The biggest reason (for people becoming denialists) is lack of consultation," Zinger said. "People don't get enough information and begin to think that somebody is hiding something from them."

"The temptation to believe that it's a myth is very high," she said, especially for heterosexual people that are not in risk groups commonly associated with HIV that "don't understand how it happened to them".

Official Russian public health campaigns touting fidelity and "family values" rather than condoms as the best HIV prevention tactic may be fuelling denialism, some activists say.

Posters seen by AFP in Moscow show a couple embracing, with the caption "Be intimate only with the person you trust". However 30 percent of Russian women get HIV from their only partner, Dolzhenko said.

"These ads don't help, they make the situation worse, HIV denialism can be born from them," she said. "Imagine an Orthodox girl who went to church on Sundays, got married, and is told she is positive."

As HIV continues to be presented as an illness of druggies and "American gays", Dolzhenko said, "this girl is going to think that it has nothing to do with her".

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