Eastern Europe Hit Hard by AIDS

Associated Press from the LOS ANGELES TIMES



WARSAW, Poland... Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics are being overwhelmed by a surge in AIDS cases, an organizer of a regional conference on fighting the disease said Wednesday.

"The countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are helpless toward AIDS. Some governments pretend the problem does not exist; others just don't do anything about it," said Piotr Konczewski of the Warsaw-based Batory Foundation.

Those were among the conclusions at a regional conference that brought specialists from 27 countries to Debe, outside Warsaw, to discuss ways to reverse the trend.

Organizers of the gathering, which ended last weekend, said it was the region's first such conference on HIV/AIDS.

The United Nations has reported that last year the number of people in the region living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, jumped to more than 700,000, from 420,000 in 1999.

Officials of UNAIDS, the United Nations program on AIDS, say the true number probably is much higher because of unreported cases. Most of the increase has been among intravenous drug users.

Officials blame the increase partly on the sudden opening of borders, growth of organized crime and weakened police control after the collapse of communist rule a decade ago.

Conference participants discussed strategies for checking the spread of AIDS, including education programs and ways to coax more money from governments.

In Poland, where the increase in infections has leveled off, officials point to such efforts as distribution of condoms to prostitutes and lectures for truck drivers. Both groups spread the disease through their sexual contacts.

"It's very simple," Konczewski said. "That's why we want to hold similar actions in Lithuania and Ukraine."

Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia and Kazakstan top the list of worst-affected former Soviet republics. With a population of 145 million, Russia has 60,000 registered HIV cases, but the actual number of infected people is estimated to be 10 times greater.

Drug addicts who share needles accounted for most cases. But officials are concerned about the spread of HIV from drug users to the general population through heterosexual relations.