We Wouldn’t Mind If You Died of AIDS

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HIV Prevention Organization in Altai Territory Closes Due to Inability to Pay Court Fine
Takie Dela
December 4, 2018

Choice (Vybor), a non-profit HIV service organization, has been forced to close its office in Biysk, Altai Territory, due to its inability to pay a court-imposed fine, reports Kommersant. The NGO had been found guilty of refusing to acknowledge it was a “foreign agent.”

The Altai Territorial Court upheld the ruling of the Biysk City Court, which had fined Choice 150,000 rubles [approx. €2,000] for failing to recognize itself as a “foreign agent” and voluntarily place itself on the registry of “foreign agents.”

According to Maxim Olenichev, a lawyer from Attorneys for Equal Rights who represented Choice in court, on November 30, the organization was forced to close its office and cancel its HIV prevention programs in the region, including programs for intravenous drug users and other risk groups.

“HIV-service NGOS have access to ‘closed’ groups of people who are unwilling to turn to state institutions for help,” Olenichev said in an interview with reporters. “Attacking such NGOS reflects a policy of ‘traditional values,’ a policy focused on criminalizing the actions of people who do not comply with these values or ignore them. By using the law on ‘foreign agents’ to destroy NGOs, the state promotes the growth of HIV-infected people, although by joining forces with NGOs the state could halt the epidemic’s growth.”

The court ruled that several of Choice’s campaigns, during which the NGO handed out HIV express tests (41 people tested positive — TD), over 100,000 clean syringes, and 20,000 condoms for free, were “political” in nature. Choice employees noted they worked with the primary vulnerable groups as defined by the Russian state, using the same methods as specified in the official rules for HIV prevention. The court chose to ignore these arguments.

The court also agreed with the Russian Justice Ministry’s claim that Choice had received foreign funding in 2014 and 2016. Choice received 147,000 rubles from ESVERO, a non-profit partnership, and 272,000 rubles from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Olenichev pointed out that ESVERO had been implementing a project of the Global Fund for Fighting AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which receives funding from the Russian government, in thirty-four Russian regions. The NGO was thus using grants to put the money back into the Russian economy. As for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which sponsored Choice with funding in rubles, Olenichev claimed there was no evidence in the case file that the organization was foreign. Nevertheless, the court refused to reverse the fine.

According to the latest data from the Russian Health Ministry, in 2017, 53.5% of new cases of HIV infection were caused by sexual intercourse, while 43.6% of new infections were caused by the use of intravenous drugs. According to official statistics, the number of HIV-infected people in Russia is 998,525. Eighty-one percent of them know they are infected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized Russia as leading Europe in new cases of HIV infections at 71.1 cases per every 100,000 people. The virus is primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex (59%) and intravenous drug use (30%). The Russian Health Ministry has called these figures “extremely inaccurate.”

In late October, the Saratov Regional Organization of Chronic Diabetes Sufferers announced its closure: a court had also fined it 300,000 rubles for violating the law on “foreign agents.” The expert employed by the prosecutor’s office to audit the organization concluded it had “shape[d] preconditions for discrediting the authorities” and “report[ed] about the region’s so-called sore points to [its] foreign partners.”

Thanks to Alexander Feldberg for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Injustice Ministry

rainbowWhile rainbows do occasionally appear in the skies above Russia, the Putin regime has pursued a consistent course of official homophobia and avoidance of the country’s out-of-control HIV epidemic. Photo by the Russian Reader

Russian Justice Ministry Proposes Tightening Oversight of Foreign HIV Prevention Programs
Mediazona
September 3, 2018

The Justice Ministry has drafted a law bill that would introduce a new procedure for running foreign programs in Russia for preventing the spread of HIV. The text of the draft law has been published for public discussion.

The ministry proposes introducing a mandatory notification procedure for all noncommercial organizations planning to combat HIV in Russia, but which receive foreign funding, whether from other countries, international organizations, foreign nationals, stateless persons, their representatives, and Russia legal entities and individuals receiving money and other property from these sources.

After receipt of such a notification, the Justice Ministry will have a month to review it. It will then either have to issue permission to operate in Russia or a substantiated rejection. If a noncommercial organization continues to work on preventing HIV after receiving a rejection notice, it will be abolished.

As the BBC has noted, four foundations preventing the spread of HIV in Russia have been registered as “foreign agents” by the Justice Ministry.

Approximately a million Russians are infected with HIV. In July, RBC reported a spike of infections in Moscow. The Russian Health Ministry responded to the report by claiming the situation was stable. It urged journalists to focus only on official statistics.

Translated by the Russian Reader

There Are No Condoms in Russia

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Developing a Moral Immunity to HIV
The Education and Science Ministry doesn’t want young people to talk about condoms
Anna Makeyeva and Valeriya Mishina
Kommersant
November 3, 2017

As Kommersant has learned, a scandal has erupted in the Education and Science Ministry over an online HIV prevention lesson for high school and university students. The people responsible for the internet project have refused to fulfill demands by officials to vet answers to users’ questions in advance, as well as their recommendations to “talk about morality in order to get away from slippery topics” and avoid such words as “condom.” It is still unclear how the lesson, scheduled for December 1, will be taught.

The Nationwide Internet HIV Prevention Lesson, timed to coincide with World AIDS Day on December 1, has been held by order of the Education and Science Ministry since 2015. On the eve of the lesson in 2016, Education and Science Minister Olga Vasilyeva noted that the issue of countering the spread of the HIV infection among children and adolescents, given the complicated epidemiological circumstances, had long been a focus of the Education and Science Ministry, and occupied a vital place in a set of measures for preserving and strengthening the health of children and young people.

“The use of such innovative methods as open internet lessons at preventive events in educational institutions will help us cope more effectively with the existing problem,” Izvestia quoted the ministry’s stated position in 2015.

On November 2, a working meeting in preparation for the upcoming internet lesson was chaired by Larisa Falkovskaya, deputy director of the department for state policy on children’s rights at the Education and Science Ministry.

“For the first time in my life, a meeting at the Education and Science Ministry ended in scandal because of my fault. I refused to write the answers for those taking part in the online HIV prevention lesson,” said Sergei Bulanov, who is in charge of organizing the online lesson and heads the Center for Modern Education Technologies, a group of non-profit organizations engaged in educational and related projects.

According to Bulanov, the officials at the meeting deemed use of the word “condom” “unacceptable,” and consequently the meeting was adjourned.

Project organizers suggested to officials they give up the practice of using prepared answers in the video lesson and discuss issues of prevention in a playful way, for example, by arranging a rap battle between student teams from two regions.

“But we were told to talk about morality in order to get away from slippery topics,” complained Bulanov, adding, “The topic is ratherly widely represented in the school curriculum, but currently the Education Ministry has adopted a surprising stance, based on substituting HIV prevention, which is mostly a matter of personal hygiene, with lessons in moral values.”

Besides, Bulanov argues it is incorrect to equate the risk of infection only with antisocial behavior.

“Thirty percent of HIV-infected women were infected by the only sexual partner they ever had. Can we reproach them for antisocial behavior? HIV-positive teenagers who have been infected from birth did not lead an antisocial lifestyle.”

Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Federal AIDS Center, argues the view it is better not talk to children about sex currently prevails in Russia.

“It is one of the reasons HIV has spread so widely in Russia,” he said.

According to Pokrovsky, twenty percent of young women are already having sex by the age of fifteen. He added that in Germany, for example, sex education is an obligatory subject in schools. Last year, only 3,500 cases of infection were registered there, while over 100,000 cases of infection were registered in the Russian Federation.

“We see two fundamentally [different] approaches and two different outcomes,” Pokrovsky concluded.

The Education and Science Ministry declined to comment on the situation when approached by Kommersant. The Russian Federal Health Ministry learned about the conflict from Kommersant. The ministry said the online HIV prevention lesson was an undertaking of the Education and Science Ministry.

“They did not come to us with this or consult with us,” our sources at the Health Ministry said.

Sergei Bulanov assured Kommersant preparations for the open HIV prevention lesson for young people would be continued.

“We will keep on working, focusing more on recommendations from specialists at the Health Ministry and Rospotrebnadzor [the Russian federal consumer watchdog] than on the client [i.e., the Education and Science Ministry].

The internet lesson will take place on December 1, 2017.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Pravda.ru

Russian Government Refuses to Allocate 70 Billion Rubles to Combat HIV

Government Refuses to Allocate 70 Billion Rubles to Combat HIV
Polina Zvezdina
RBC
January 26, 2017

The Health Ministry has sent the government a plan for implementing the national strategy for preventing the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) until 2020. RBC has a copy of the document, whose authenticity has been confirmed by a source close to the government, in its possession. The plan does not stipulate allocating additional funds for combating the infection. In the financial feasibility study appended to the draft plan, officials noted the agencies responsible for its implementation, as well as the regions, would have to finance the plan’s implementation.

Additional financing of the plan was stipulated in a earlier draft, also examined by RBC. In the draft, the Health Ministry had indicated additional monies from the budget, 17.5 billion rubles per annum, would be required to meet the strategy’s targets. There were plans to spend 13.2 billion rubles of this money on treatment, 3.2 billion rubles on diagnosis, and 1.1 billion rubles on treatment oversight. This funding should have made it possible for all HIV patients currently registered at AIDS centers to undergo special treatment and increase to 35% the share of the population tested annually for HIV. In 2015, 19.3% of the population was tested for HIV, while 37.3% of infected patients were provided with medical treatment.

It was the Finance Ministry that did not approve allocating the 70 billion rubles, judging by a ministry review sent to the Health Ministry on December 22, 2016. First Deputy Finance Minister Tatyana Nesterenko did not support the additional allocation, because these funds were not included in the approved federal budget for 2017–2019. In the review, the Finance Ministry argued that budgetary allocations for new spending could be contemplated only at the beginning of the fiscal year and provided that the government had additional revenues.

The government will continue its discussion of the draft plan for HIV prevention, said Denis Godlevsky, an expert at the HIV Assistance Foundation. There is a chance the Health Ministry will succeed in obtaining the full funding, he said.

"Percentages of HIV infected people in Russia. The percentage of people infected nationwide is 0.72%." In the original article, this map is interactive by region.
Percentages of HIV infected people in Russia by region. The percentage of people under the age of 60 infected nationwide is 0.72%. In the original article (go to the link at the top of the page), this map is interactive by region. The figures for Crimea and Sebastopol reflect the percentage of infected residents among all age groups. Infographic courtesy of RBC

Testing 35% of the population annually for HIV and providing 100% treatment for all registered patients were goals the Health Ministry hoped to achieve only if it received the “requisite” financing, as outlined in the HIV prevention strategy adopted by the government. If this money is not provided, the ministry proposes focusing on a different set of figures. Under the current healthcare budget, the number of people undergoing testing would increase to only 24%, while 56% of infected patients would receive treatment.

The Health Ministry has not responded to RBC’s questions as to which set of targets the ministry would follow when implementing the strategy.

If government agencies would use the funds already available effectively and rationally, the situation would begin to change for the better anyway, said Alexei Lakhov, deputy director for public relations at E.V.A., a noncommercial partnership.

“And when the situation changes for the better, a financial feasibility study can be done requesting additional appropriations,” Lakhov suggested.

The HIV prevention strategy was approved on October 20, 2016. It contained no information about funding.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Agents of H.A.R.V.A.R.D.

Chapayevsk. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Bochkaryov/Kommersant
Chapayevsk. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Bochkaryov/Kommersant

Harvard Agents Association
The Justice Ministry Has Fined an NGO for Medical Research
Alexander Chernykh
Kommersant
December 21, 2016

The Chapayevsk Medical Workers Association, an NGO in the Samara Region, has appealed the Justice Ministry’s decision identifying it as a “foreign agent.” The organization was cited for grants it has been receiving from Harvard for over twelve years to study the health of people who live in enivornmental disaster areas. The Justice Ministry additionally cited the work of its doctors in preventing HIV as “contrary to Russian national interests.” The association is on the verge of closure, despite the unprecedented support it has received from town officials, physicians, and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Chapayevsk Medical Workers Association was established in 1999.

“Chapayevsk produced pesticides for many years, which led to increased levels of dioxins,” says Oleg Sergeyev, head of the association and a Ph.D. in medicine. “Increased mortality was recorded in the town. The local hospitals were not coping due to a lack of funds and equipment. So the town’s doctors united into an NGO to try and solve the problem.”

Located 45 kilometers from Samara, the town, whose population is 73,000, was founded in 1909 as a settlement built round an explosives factory. In 1926, a chemical weapons factory went into operation, later converted into a fertilizer plant. In 1999, the State Ecology Committee declared the town an “environmental emergency area.” Chapayevsk received a total of 1.742 billion rubles in federal subsidies, and its status as an environmental emergency area was rescinded in 2005. In 2008, the mayor of Chapayevsk officially proposed resettling the city.

In 2003, the association launched a long-term research study, entitled “Dioxins, Pubertal Growth, and the Development of Boys,” in cooperation with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“With the consent of their parents, we selected 516 boys between the ages of eight and nine, and have been carefully tracking their health every year since then. Now they are young men between the ages of 19 and 22,” says Oleg Sergeyev. “We have seen how the dioxins and pesticides have impacted the growth, development, and especially the reproductive health of the men.”

The researched has been funded by the National Institutes of Health in the US. In 2003, the NIH made a long-term research grant to the project, and in 2010, it extended the grant for another six years.

“During this period, we received 65.2 million rubles,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “34.2 million was spent on the salaries of seventeen staff members, 21.4 million rubles, on equipment and supplies, and 9.6 million rubles, on social benefit payments.”

The association’s second focus has been HIV prevention.

“In the late 1990s, Chapayevsk ranked third in the region in the spread of HIV,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “This was due to injecting drug use. The drugs were easily accessible here.”

Physicans hit the streets to engage in harm reduction work, which has involved them in meeting with drug users, handing out brochures and free condoms, persuading people to get tested for HIV, collecting used syringes, and supplying clean syringes. Harm reduction programs in Chapayevsky have covered around 800 people annually (a little over one percent of the population). According to doctors, this is around a third of the town’s injecting drug users.

In 2014, the Justice Ministry’s regional office audited the association twice, concluding the NGO was not engaged in political activity. In October 2016, these very same officials changed their opinion and demanded the association be added to the list of “foreign agents.” The Justice Ministry’s Samara office failed to respond promptly to our request for information, but Kommersant has obtained a copy of the audit report. Officials deemed it a violation that Oleg Sergeyev sits on the Samara Regional Duma’s NGO Council and has been involved in the hearings of two committees, on physical education and healthy lifestyles, and on providing social services to the populace. In 2013, one commission recommended that regional MPs ban cigarette ads at public transport stops and in shops. In 2015, it recommended that regional MPs add the phrase “citizens are responsible for maintaining their own health” to the law “On Basic Public Healthcare.” The auditors construed this as “political activity financed by foreigners.”

The association’s work in preventing HIV has also not escaped the auditors’ attention. The Justice Ministry dubbed the needle exchange and the distribution of condoms by physicians the “inculcation of practices contrary to Russian national interests.” In the wake of the audit, the officials asked the court to rule the association a “foreign agent.” The court granted the request, additionally fining the NGO 300,000 rubles and Oleg Sergeyev 50,000 rubles for not registering themselves voluntarily.

“I don’t know where to get the money,” says Mr. Sergeyev.

According to him, no grantmaking organization permits the payment of fines out funds allocated for scientific research.

“It’s a matter of scientific reputation,” say Mr. Sergeyev. “If they had labeled us an ‘organization receiving foreign funding,’ then for God’s sake we would have enrolled ourselves in such a registry. But we have been accused of working for another country, although we have always acted in the interests of our town.”

The organization filed an appeal last week. As candidates for “foreign agent” status, the physicians have received unprecedented support from researchers at the Institute of Genetics and the Institute of Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as from the town’s chief narcologist.

Chapayevsk’s Mayor Dmitry Blynsky also wrote an official letter to the Justice Ministry. (He resigned in November 2016, but signed the letter while still in office.) According to Blynsky, the NGO’s collaboration with Harvard “has been of great benefit to the town.”

“The medical and lab equipment that has been procured has been used to treat the populace of Chapayevsk. In view of Chapayevsk’s subsidized budget, another important aspect of attracting foreign financing has been the creation of jobs for medical professionals,” wrote Blynsky.

According to the ex-mayor, the outcomes of the NGO’s long-term research studies have been used to develop public programs for the town’s social and environmental rehabilitation.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Tamara Koganzon for the heads-up