ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Quietly, the number of Russians who have received a positive HIV diagnosis passed the one million mark this year. There is, however, little indication that the government will commit adequate resources to stem the acceleration of the virus from high-risk groups into the general population. About 850,000 Russians carry HIV and an additional 220,000 have died since the late 1980s, said Vadim Pokrovsky, the longtime head of the Moscow-based Federal AIDS Center, who estimated that at least another 500,000 cases of HIV have gone undiagnosed.
Although the label “epidemic” prompts denials from some senior officials, experts on the front lines like Mr. Pokrovsky are calling it just that. The overall estimate of victims constitutes about 1 percent of Russia’s population of 143 million, enough to be considered an epidemic, they argued. Beyond that, they said that heterosexual sex would soon top intravenous drug use as the main means of infection.
“This can already be considered a threat to the entire nation,” Mr. Pokrovsky said, noting that the caseload is increasing by about ten percent a year. In 2016, 100,000 new infections are anticipated, about 275 daily. It is the largest HIV epidemic in Europe and among the highest rates of infection globally.
Despite the grim milestone, experts do not expect much change in Russia, where victims still face the kind of stigma prevalent in the 1980s in the West and where continuing trench warfare between the Kremlin and independent nongovernmental organizations saps collective efforts. In addition, some prominent voices push “family values” as the ideal prevention program. In many ways, Russia’s fight against HIV is a case study in the constant tension between civil society and a Kremlin under President Vladimir V. Putin; public activity outside government control is considered inherently suspect. Tensions heightened this year after the Justice Ministry blackballed a number of bantam N.G.O.s involved in combating HIV/AIDS as “foreign agents” because they received grants from abroad.
Anton Krasovsky, a prominent talk show host fired in January 2013 after coming out as gay on air, says he has spent his personal savings building an N.G.O. that tries to bridge that divide. “Since we are not talking about fighting Putin, but fighting a virus, people have to understand that they can fight this virus only if they are on the same side as Putin,” Mr. Krasovsky said. “It is impossible to change the situation without coming to some kind of an agreement.”
To read the complete story by Neil MacFarquhar, go to the New York Times, here.