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Don't get ill in Russia, HIV campaigners warn

Fancy dress protests are the last hope for Russian HIV-activists who have been demanding proper treatment from the Russian Health Ministry.

Blonde nurses, blind doctors and fortune tellers — 20 activists in total — handcuffed themselves to the rails outside the Presidential reception in Moscow, just few steps away from the Ministry.

"HIV is treated by guesswork in Russia" they claimed on their banners, lamenting the disappearance of test systems for HIV throughout Russia.

These tests are vital to enable doctors to understand whether medication to control the virus is effective, or whether prescriptions need to be changed.

And without this information the future for HIV sufferers is bleak, as activist Alexandra Volgina told journalists: "One simply cannot be ill in Russia."

Medication running out

Volgina, a member of pressure group Patsientsky Kontrol, has been living with HIV for 12 years, and has received medical treatment for the last five, but it's not only her own life that depends on these tests.

She has a young child, and these tests also give essential indications of how easily the illness could be passed on. Meanwhile, other medications reducing the risk of children picking up the infection from their parents are also scarce in Russia.

Indeed, according to Denis Godlevsky, from monitoring project Simona+, launched by Russian AIDS centres' patients, more clinics are going to run out of medication for children within weeks if the Health Ministry doesn't react immediately.

In Russia, 60,000 new HIV infections are found every year, according to the federal center for AIDS prevention and treatment. All of them will need medical help within a few years, Godlevsky said, added that the current system does not work.

Kept in the dark

Activists dressed-up as fortune tellers held posters offering "palm-reading for viral load", while blind doctors were to illustrate that health professionals are powerless to help without proper resources.

The problems intensified after changes in funding were introduced this year, activists claim. Now regional authorities only get state grants in the second half of the year and it is unlikely there will be enough tests to go round.

But it seems this is just the latest in a long round of health service failures.

"It's been on for six years ­ medications disappear, then some of drugs are found, then lost again," Volgina said.

Raising the alarm

Fancy dress protests have been held since last summer, and this year activists founded "Patsientsky Kontrol", to monitor the situation.

Failed drug supplies are recorded on the organization's website, and activists are currently collected written complaints which can be handed to Russian prosecutors.

People have become so desperate that they are now ready to reveal their identities in these complaints ­ something that has never happened before, Volgina added.

"All those costumes and make up our activists wear at actions are also to hide their faces," she told the Moscow News, as many are not willing to reveal their HIV+ status.

A wall of silence

All 20 activists were detained after yesterday's protests. No-one from the health ministry came out to talk to them, and the Presidential Reception, where they wanted to leave their open letter, was also closed.

"The Prosecutors' Office is our only alley," Volgina said.

Last year, their probe into HIV medication supplies found numerous violations. Unfortunately, it can't really turn the tide, as the Health Ministry is not obliged to react to prosecutors' direction.

Taking personal action against the Health Ministry's policies is often hard for patients as it usually means submitting a claim against his or her doctor.

"Most AIDS centers are ready to take on the responsibility themselves," Volgina said. From her experience, only one center decided not to get involved in the process, but provided all their correspondence with the Ministry.

"We were amazed to see how much they do for us, their patients," she said.

Nearly 590,000 Russian citizens have been registered as HIV+ in 2010, according to federal centre for AIDS prevention and treatment. Other sources suggest the number has long exceeded one million.

Russia, Health, Epidemics, HIV, AIDS - Russian News - Russia - Johnson's Russia List

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