MOSCOW and NEW YORK – A group of Russian AIDS activists are charging that the Russian Ministry of Health is denying that there are drug stock-outs that prevent patients from starting or continuing treatment. “In this situation, people with HIV face a choice: to die quietly at home or try to attract the attention of the government and the media,” said Alexey Yaskovich, a Russian activist from Novgorod. “Therefore, activists will continue to go to the streets of Moscow and hold public events dedicated to saving their lives.” Activists continue to mount protests around Moscow, even as some have been arrested and briefly detained.
Half of HIV-positive patients in need of life-saving treatment in The Russian Federation will not receive the drugs they need in 2010. According to the Russian Health Care Foundation, fewer than 62,000 patients out of the 120,000 who need treatment are receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART).
“We, people living with HIV, are tired of inhumane treatment at the hands of officials. We will not be held hostage to official incompetence or negligence. We have the right to live!” said Alexandra Volgina, an HIV-positive activist from St. Petersburg.
Representatives from several non-governmental and community organizations along with people living with HIV/AIDS staged protests in Red Square and in front of the Ministry of Health following the Foundation’s warning that the crisis will deepen once Russia is no longer eligible for funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The activists called on the government to act now to ensure that all Russians currently in need of HIV treatment receive it and to develop a plan to ensure continuity of treatment when the Global Fund program is phased out.
The call for justice for HIV-positive Russians will be echoed in New York City as world leaders come together for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Summit at the United Nations. “We stand in solidarity with the Russian activists fighting for their lives. A retreat on HIV treatment in Russia or across Africa is no way to reach the MDG goals,” said Aditi Sharma, an activist from India, who will be participating in the Universal Access by 20-When March in New York on Monday.
Widespread drug stock-outs across Russia The disruption of the HIV drug supply is affecting many regions in the country, despite the 10 billion rubles (US $322 million) allocated to HIV treatment in the federal budget. Officials have proven unwilling or unable to arrange the timely supply of the essential drugs on which the lives of HIV-positive people depend.
The HIV activists call on their government to ensure continuity of antiretroviral therapy for HIV, including:
- Stop chaos in procurement of antiretroviral drugs in Russia and pay special attention to the planning of HIV drug supplies based on scientific assessment of number of people in need of treatment
- Establish a reserve of drugs to cover stock-outs
Stock-outs have been documented for four consecutive years, a situation that has irreversible consequences for public health and threatens the lives of people living with HIV. Drug shortages have been documented in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tula, Ulyanovsk, Samara, Arkhangelsk, Moscow Region, Vladimir, Kaliningrad, Saratov and other areas. “The situation will only change when the Ministry of Health admits the problem, but the Ministry continues to lie to the Russian people about HIV drug supplies,” said Gregory Vergus, an activist from St. Petersburg.
Following the demonstration in Moscow, the Ministry announced that there is no problem with drug supplies, but the next day one local hospital declared that it had on a few occasions informed the Ministry of Health about stock outs. There are now nine court cases brought by HIV-positive patients against AIDS centers in three cities where drugs are not readily available. There is also a crisis for HIV treatment programs in prisons, with months-long interruptions in treatment reported in 15 prisons across Russia.
In addition, in several cities doctors are confirming shortages, sometimes publicly and sometimes secretly to activists, and at least one doctor has openly blamed the Ministry of Health for shortages. There are also reports that, in the city of Tumen, a doctor was punished for giving patients HIV drugs without official permission. Today, hospital staff have joined HIV patients as hostages of this untenable situation.
Activists say that the Ministry is acting like it is still in the USSR, without sex and drugs. This year it has refused to finance most HIV prevention programs and continues to deny the growth of the HIV epidemic among both vulnerable groups and the general population.
“The actions of the Ministry of Health first made Russia a country without prevention, and now it is becoming country without treatment,” added Vergus.