1st December 2011- In Russia today, we are bearing witness to one of the biggest, avoidable catastrophes in the history of HIV – the lack of response to the epidemic in Russia. We must point directly to the specific responsibility that Russian medical and public health officials bear for creating and sustaining this disastrous situation. Of particular concern are Russia’s, brutalising drug policies and its recently revised Total War on Drugs, which has resulted in further pushing people who use drugs into hiding, prison, and enforced detention, and severely compromising efforts from the international community to revert the trajectory of HIV/AIDS.

Injecting drugs with contaminated equipment is driving Russia’s HIV epidemic, now the fastest growing in the world and it is reflected in the numbers; as many as 80% of new infections are occurring amongst people who inject drugs (PWID), in a total HIV positive population of approx 1million. With this in mind, recent projections forecast an additional 5 million people could become infected with HIV in the near future, unless Russia transforms the way it is dealing with its HIV pandemic.

Russian authorities have repeatedly come in for fierce international criticism over their policy towards the treatment of drug dependence, claiming, incorrectly, that the effectiveness of OST - opiate substitution therapy -  (such as providing methadone and buprenorphine) has not been adequately demonstrated, and as such it is prohibited by law and promotion of its use – punishable by a jail sentence.

With over 30,000 people dying from heroin overdoses every year, (100,000 from drugs)  numbers that can be shown to markedly reduce with the implementation of OST, and 150 becoming infected with HIV each day (2/3rds of which are injecting drug users), also evidenced to drastically reduce with the roll out of Needle and Syringe Programmes (NSP), we demand an immediate transformational shift in Russia’s approach to HIV prevention and its treatment of drug users.  Access to NSP and OST is in itself, a human right;  UN Ruman Rights Monitors have specifically stated harm reduction interventions as necessary for states to comply with the right to health.

Evidence has repeatedly shown the clear benefits to the individual and society as a whole when drug dependence is viewed as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal one. Evidence also shows OST, combined with a range of harm reduction measures such NSP, leads to a drastic reduction in the spread of new HIV infections in countries across the globe; none of this more clearly demonstrated today, than in Netherlands, a world leader in harm reduction where in 2010, only ONE injecting drug user contracted HIV. In the UK, another country that has harm reduction at the centre of its HIV prevention strategy, prevalence of HIV amongst drug injectors is at 1.5%, this against a Russian HIV prevalence backdrop of 30-35%. The evidence on harm reduction has been in for years. Why does Russia continue to turn its back?

The Russian government‘s estimated annual expenditure related to drug law enforcement) equal approx 100 million US  dollars. This amount does not include the money spent on detention and imprisonment. No money at all is allocated towards HIV prevention among the injecting drug using population.

This World Aids Day, December 1st 2011, we will echo the urgent voices of Russian drug users who are living and dying in the grip of an HIV and TB pandemic with almost no recourse or chance to engage in or promote an effective response.  In 10 cities around the world, led by organisations of people who use drugs / HIV orgs and others, supported by INPUD - The International Network of People who Use Drugs, will descend on Russian Embassies and protest SHAME RUSSIA SHAME!! THE WORLD IS WATCHING!! Please follow links for details: Fascinating speakers in each city, guest appearances, candlelight vigils in London, Berlin, Stockholm,  Bucharest, New York City, Canberra, Toronto, Tbilisi, Paris, Porto.

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Press enquiries to: Eliot Albers at eliotalbers@inpud.net and matthewsouthwell@me.com  consultant INPUD / Gold Standard Team, Russia -Anya Sarang at anyasarang@gmail.com, and Damon.Barrett@ihra.net Human rights policy advisor Harm reducation International.

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