Monthly Archives: July 2016

Is the Kremlin fuelling Russia’s HIV epidemic?

Svetlana Izambayeva, 36, won a beauty pageant in 2005 for HIV-positive women, becoming one of the first Russians to bring the country's HIV/Aids epidemic to the public eye

Svetlana Izambayeva, 36, won a beauty pageant in 2005 for HIV-positive women, becoming one of the first Russians to bring the country’s HIV/Aids epidemic to the public eye

Svetlana Izambayeva, 36, is one of Russia’s most unusual beauty queens.  The former hairdresser from the Volga River city of Cheboksary was crowned Miss Positive during a 2005 pageant for HIV-positive women.

She was one of the first Russians to publicly disclose their status; tens of millions saw her do so on national television.  Four years later, Izambayeva’s widowed mother died, and she was denied custody of her two little brothers.

Article by Mansuar Mirovale of Al Jazeera 

Russian law does not allow an HIV-positive person to become a child’s legal guardian. The boys ended up in an orphanage where they were beaten, had their belongings stolen and got lice.

“I went through eight trials to win them back,” Izambayeva, red-haired and bespectacled, told Al Jazeera at a conference on HIV/Aids in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, held in Moscow in late March.

Izambayeva, her brothers, husband and two children, now live in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Kazan, a city of 1.2 million with a sizeable Muslim population.

There she heads a charity which helps people living with the HIV virus, and moonlights as a part-time psychologist at a state-run clinic for $60 a month.

Izambayeva is also on the frontlines of the fight against Russia’s soaring HIV/Aids epidemic.

Russia: in the top 10

The number of registered HIV-positive Russians surpassed one million in January, almost doubling since 2011, Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova told the conference. She admitted that this number may reach 2.5 million by 2020.

The current rate of HIV is less than 1 percent of the country’s population of 143 million. It seems miniscule in comparison to South Africa’s estimated 12.2 percent, Botswana’s 17.6 percent and even Suriname’s 1.1 percent.

But these nations’ epidemics have been contained and are on their way down, while Russia is among the top 10 countries with the fastest-growing incidence of HIV/Aids.  Here, it claims 300 new victims a day, or almost 30,000 deaths a year.

Russia, along with four African nations and Indonesia, face the ” triple threat of high HIV burden, low treatment coverage and no or little decline in new HIV infections,” according to a 2014 report by UNAIDS, a United Nations programme on HIV and Aids.

UNAIDS  has warned that Russia “is facing a large and growing HIV epidemic.” It’s one which has become ” irreversible in many ways,” Russia’s Federal Aids Centre has said.

On July 11, UNAIDS, in its 2016 Prevention Gap Report on how unequal access to HIV prevention options caused a rise in infections between 2010 – 2015, singled out Eastern Europe and Central Asia as “the only region in the world where the HIV epidemic continued to rise rapidly.”

Elsewhere, the decline in adult infections has largely stalled. In this new global report, the agency said that the region saw a dramatic 57 percent annual increase in new HIV infections since 2010. Russia accounted for 80 percent of new cases in 2015 in what consitutes as “the region’s largest HIV epidemic”.

“Low coverage of prevention programmes, in particular harm-reduction interventions among people who inject drugs, is largely to blame for this continued rise,” the report said.

At the March conference, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev told audiences that the epidemic is ” a matter of national security and a real tragedy for our country.”

The Kremlin’s fault?

Independent Russian experts and HIV activists claim that the epidemic is fuelled by the Kremlin’s policies, or, rather, its abandonment of internationally accepted prevention methods such as sex education in schools, distribution of condoms to sex workers, and clean needles and methadone therapy for drug addicts, let alone awareness-raising campaigns such as the pageant Izambayeva won more than a decade ago.

The trend accelerated after Vladimir Putin’s return to a third presidency in 2012, which was marked by massive protests, mostly by middle-class, pro-Western urbanites.

The Kremlin responded by cracking down on opposition and all things Western, be that political trends, tolerance towards sexual minorities or programmes on HIV/Aids reduction run by foreign-funded NGOs.

Putin’s government is “directly sabotaging HIV prevention by not allocating its own funds and blocking the work of international donors and Russian NGOs,” said Anna Sarang, head of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, the only NGO distributing clean needles to drug addicts in Moscow.

In 2012, Russia adopted a law that requires foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents”, and the Justice Ministry has listed some 100 groups as such. These groups are frequently audited, denied registration with authorities, their offices searched, their staff detained, arrested and interrogated. Many have been forced to close. In late June, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation was listed as a “foreign agent”.

The Silver Rose, an NGO in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, which protects the rights of sex workers and uses Western funds for advocacy work among them, has been denied registration three times.

“We really remain the last barrier to the epidemic,” the group’s head, Irina Maslova, told Al Jazeera. “But sex education goes against the Orthodox [Christian] morals.”

Persecuted and decimated in Soviet times, the Russian Orthodox Church now claims two-thirds of Russia’s population as its flock. Though polls show a fraction to be devout, the Church enjoys unprecedented government support and its doctrine plays a crucial role in the Kremlin’s neoconservative agenda.

In mid-April, a court in the city of Engels declared Socium – an NGO which used grants from Western donors to distribute condoms and clean needles to drug addicts and HIV-infected people – a “foreign agent”.

Moreover, Ivan Konovalov, a sociology expert, told the court that the NGO “participated in a hybrid war that aims to change the political regime in our country,” the Russian daily newspaper the Kommersant reported.

“Its operations in principle contradict the goals and objectives of our state,” the daily quoted him as saying. “They destroy our traditions and national values.”

“Traditions and values” was the mantra the Kremlin used in 2013, when Putin signed the infamous legislation banning the distribution of information defined as “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism” to minors.

“Russia’s policies are aimed at discriminating [against] all vulnerable groups – drug users, LGBT, sex workers – and directly oppose scientifically proven methods of prevention that are used worldwide,” Sarang says, adding that these methods “are replaced with the policies of spreading hate and homophobia”.

Already widespread, homophobia grew rampant, hate attacks and persecution of LGBT Russians skyrocketed, and education materials on HIV/Aids describing same-sex relations and distributed by international agencies and Russian NGOs are often treated as the banned “propaganda”.

“The fight against HIV is the very litmus test that measures the level of humanity and tolerance, and that’s where we fail the most,” political analyst Sergey Medvedev said at the Moscow conference.

Despite several requests, Russia’s health ministry was not available for comment.

Roots of the scourge

The start of the epidemic dates back to the initial years after the 1991 Soviet collapse.  For the Soviets, sex out of wedlock was frowned upon, abortion was the most common method of family planning and homosexuality was a crime punishable by up to five years in jail.

Those diagnosed with a venereal disease could face criminal charges if they refused to identify their sexual partners. Families and reputations were ruined, but the transmission chain was cut short.

The fall of communism brought an unprecedented openness – of borders, ways of life and sexual mores – along with painful, disorienting economic problems. Partying went along with promiscuity; nightclubs, including for gay patrons, mushroomed.

“The attitude to sex became, just like in the West during the student revolutions of the 1970s, one of the main symbols of the new, liberal, pro-Western, anti-Soviet, individualistic and hedonistic mentality that had been repressed and persecuted by the Communist Party,” wrote Igor Kon, the late Russian scholar whose books on human sexuality became eye-opening bestsellers in the early 1990s.

Prostitution became ubiquitous. Sex workers lined up along Tverskaya Street in Moscow, a short walk uphill from the Kremlin. Newspapers were filled with countless ads promising all kinds of “massage”.

Then came the drugs.

Intravenous drug use was virtually unknown, limited to only a small group of users with access, in the Soviet Union but by the early 2000s, Russia became the world’s largest consumer of Afghan heroin, injecting, sniffing or toking up to 20 tonnes of it a year.

Moscow accused Washington of forbidding NATO troops to destroy Afghan poppy fields to win the hearts and minds of local farmers, and allowing the smuggling of heroin to ex-Soviet Central Asia.

Some 1.5 million Russians are still addicted to heroin, according to FSKN, the federal anti-drugs agency that was headed by Viktor Ivanov, Putin’s ex-KGB colleague, before being disbanded in April.

FSKN preferred heavy-handed policies of dealing with addiction. Methadone was outlawed in 1997, and FSKN pushed for tougher punishment for drug users and wants to be able to forcibly commit them to state-run rehab clinics.

The idea that drug addicts, gays and prostitutes are the primary, if not the only victims of HIV/Aids, persists in the minds of many Russians today.

According to a 2012 survey by FOM, a state-run pollster, 48 percent of Russians think that drug users mostly contract HIV, and 26 percent believe that “promiscuous people, prostitutes” are most at risk.

Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed think those infected had it coming, and their status is “their fault”.

In recent years, things have changed. The amount of heroin entering Russia decreased and the epidemic spread beyond the risk groups, says Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Federal Aids Center.

About 43 percent of new HIV infections occur during heterosexual sex, he says.

Overcoming the stigma

That’s how Izambayeva got infected – during a fling with a young man she met on a holiday in southern Russia – something people here call a “resort romance”.

She recalls her own deep depression after she learned about her status in 2003. All she knew about the virus at the time was that it would kill her soon, and she kept repeating a line in her head from a popular Russian rock song: “And now you have Aids / which means we’re gonna die.”

It was only after meeting HIV activists and learning more about anti-retroviral treatment that she felt ready to fight the virus. Then she won the pageant, met and married her HIV-positive husband and founded her charity. She has consulted hundreds of HIV-infected people and their families, helping them to tackle the stigma and getting them on to treatment, and often educating them about the most basic facts about HIV/Aids.

She discovered that combating the stigma surrounding HIV is far more difficult than observing the treatment.

“HIV will keep progressing in Russia until we overcome the stigma,” she says.

The lives of many HIV-positive Russians are filled with fear of disclosure and daily abuses.

Some refuse to start their anti-retroviral treatment because they know very little about its results and end up choosing shorter, closeted lives over monthly visits to health clinics where they fear their status will be divulged to outsiders.

This happens all too often.

“Medical secrecy does not exist,” Ruslan, an HIV-positive resident of Kazan, who only gave his first name, told Al Jazeera. He said his doctor revealed his status to people outside the clinic who knew Ruslan and they spread the news.

What also prevents many HIV-positive people from starting treatment is the lack of information about the most basic facts about the virus, especially when it comes to teenagers and people in their early 20s who appear to know very little about prevention, Izambayeva says.

“People say, ‘Your treatment will kill me faster than Aids,'” she says about some of her patients whose knowledge about the virus is mostly based on hearsay.

Because of compulsory screening, pregnant women represent the most tragic stratum of the epidemic.

They comprise almost a quarter of newly diagnosed cases and sometimes reject treatment, passing along the infection to their child.

“Some pregnant women tell me, ‘You can’t do anything to me, this is my foetus, I’ll do anything I want with it,'” says Izambayeva, who adhered to a drug regimen during her pregnancy and gave birth to two HIV-negative children.

Dostoevsky and immorality

While HIV activists blame the growing epidemic on the Kremlin’s neoconservative bent, officials and the dominant Orthodox Church back it.

The Church has adamantly opposed needle-exchange programmes, methadone therapy and the use of condoms because they “condone sin” and has instructed its clergy to bring their HIV-infected parishioners closer to Christ and seek medical help.

“Of course, we are very glad that the so-called harm-reduction programmes and free distribution of condoms, replacement of [heroin] with methadone are not accepted in our country,” Bishop Panteleimon said in October, addressing a government panel on HIV/Aids.

“We understand that there is a need for other methods and other programmes,” he added, referring to the Church’s emphasis on chastity and tougher drug-control measures.

“Like no other disease, Aids has moral, or, to be more exact, immoral reasons,” said the bishop, who runs an Orthodox rehabilitation centre for heroin addicts in his parish of Orekhovo-Zuevo, a region near Moscow.

To hear it from Russia’s child rights ombudsman, one of the most outspoken critics of the West, would be to think Dostoevsky and Tolstoy offer better prevention strategies than the UN.

“Today, the best sexual education is Russian literature,” Pavel Astakhov said in televised remarks in 2013, referring to the Orthodox morals that the classics draw upon, evidently forgetting the prostitution and adultery vividly described in them.

Western sexual education, he added, “destroys children’s mentality and causes irreparable danger”.  Such thinking has resulted in the omission of sex education and information about contraception on state-backed public service announcements.

“When condoms are considered a crime, things get complicated,” Natalya Vershinina, an HIV activist from the Volga River city of Samara, told Al Jazeera.

She says that many Russian couples haven’t fully embraced the necessity of getting tested for HIV before starting a relationship. She points to the slapstick television series How I Became a Russian, which aired in 2015 on the national STS channel, as an example.

In the series, an American journalist falls in love with Russia, and a Russian girl. In one episode, he shows her a fake certificate proving that he is HIV-negative. She immediately recognises forgery, but says, “I trust you” and, apparently, has unprotected sex with him. The episode reflects an opportunist attitude many young Russians have when it comes to sex.

A 2012 poll by the NewsEffector monitoring agency showed that more than 63 percent of Russians aged 16-35 don’t use protection when they have casual sex.

Russia’s struggling economy is also affecting the HIV/Aids epidemic.

The Health Ministry said that fewer than 200,000 HIV-infected Russians are getting free anti-retroviral therapy in 2016 because of Russia’s deepening economic meltdown. Compared to last year, 50,000 fewer people are now receiving treatment; in 2015, the Ministry had also pledged to expand treatment to 60 percent of the estimated one million Russians infected with the virus.

Tens of thousands of patients are being transferred from expensive, foreign-made drugs to cheaper, domestically produced pills, which cause more side-effects, including vomiting.

Now, each month when she visits the health clinic, Izambayeva worries she’ll be given the Russian-made drugs.

“But I pity the infected children the most,” she says. “How could they follow up on their treatment if they keep throwing up?”

Thanks for reading, let us know what you think in the comments below, or you can find us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram!

Facebook          Twitter         Insta

(Or subscribe to our newsletter)

A third of over-70s report ‘frequent sexual activity’


“A third of pensioners have sex at least twice a month,” the Daily Mail reports. A new UK study reinforces the point that sex doesn’t automatically stop once a person gets their free bus pass.

The study looked at sexual activity and sexual health among more than 6,000 men and women aged 50 to 90. It showed that a sizeable minority of older people – including those over the age of 80 – continue to have active sex lives, although sex became less frequent as people got older.

Men were particularly concerned about their sexual health as they got older, while women became less so. Men were worried about erection problems and women about lack of desire.

This is an interesting study of sexuality among older people. It relies on self-reporting, which might undermine its reliability, as some people may find it hard to be honest about such a sensitive topic.

A final important point is that sexually transmitted infection (STIs) don’t stop being a problem once you have retired. Recent data has shown that rates of common STIs in the 65 and over category have risen in England during the past decade. You should always practise safe sex whatever your age.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Manchester, University of Leeds and NatCen Social Research. It was funded by the National Institute on Aging and a consortium of UK government departments.

The study was published in thepeer-reviewed journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

The Daily Mail’s report that one third of pensioners have sex at least twice a month was accurate, but the results of this study were more complex than the Mail’s report implied as it was not all good news.

Many participants expressed concerns about sex, not just the frequency of their sexual activity. Also, the study did not cover only “pensioners” but people aged 50 and over.

What kind of research was this?

This was an observational study of sexual activity, problems with sexual functioning and concerns about sexual health among 6,201 older adults in England. The authors point out that stereotypes of older people often ignore the significance of sexual activity. Specifically how sexual activity, or lack of it, can affect fulfilment in relation to quality of life and emotional wellbeing. Also little is known about how sexuality relates to the ageing process generally.

What did the research involve?

The researchers used data from a nationally representative survey of men and women in England aged 50 years and older, who were taking part in an ongoing longitudinal study of ageing (the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing). All participants were living in the community, in private households, so the study did not cover older people in residential care.

In 2012/13, 7,079 participants had a face-to-face interview and completed a comprehensive questionnaire on their sexual relationships and activities. Partners under 50 were excluded and 6,201 participants, 56% of them women, were included in the final sample.

The questionnaire included detailed questions on attitudes to sex, frequency of sexual activities, problems with sexual activities and function, concerns and worries about sex, and details about current sexual partnerships.

Participants were also asked about their current living arrangements and general health and lifestyle factors during the face-to-face interview. They were asked if they had ever been diagnosed with any of several common conditions, including high blood pressure, arthritis,cardiovascular diseasediabetes and asthma.

They were also asked to rate their:

  • health on a five point scale (ranging from excellent to poor),
  • smoking status (current or non-smoker)
  • frequency of alcohol consumption over the past year (ranging from never or rarely, to frequently – three days a week to almost every day)

Depressive symptoms were also assessed using a validated depression scale.

The researchers analysed their results, looking specifically at any association between sexual activity, reported chronic conditions and self-rated general health. They adjusted results for age, partner status, smoking status and frequency of alcohol consumption.

What were the basic results?

Below are the main findings of the study:

  • At all ages, men reported more frequent sexual activity and thinking about sex more often than women. Likewise, sexually active men reported higher levels of concern with their sexual health and sexual dissatisfaction than women at all ages.
  • Levels of sexual activity declined with increasing age, although a sizable minority of men and women remain sexually active until the eighth and ninth decades of life.
  • Poorer health was associated with lower levels of sexual activity and a higher prevalence of problems with sexual functioning, particularly among men.
  • The difficulties most frequently reported by sexually active women related to becoming sexually aroused (32%) and achieving orgasm (27%), while for men the main difficulty was erectile function (39%).
  • The sexual health concerns most commonly reported by women related to their level of sexual desire (11%) and frequency of sexual activities (8%). Among men common concerns were level of sexual desire (15%) and erectile difficulties (14%).
  • While the likelihood of reporting sexual health concerns tended to decrease with age in women, the opposite was seen in men.
  • Poor sexual functioning and disagreements with a partner about initiating and/or feeling obligated to have sex were associated with greater concerns about and dissatisfaction with overall sex life.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say that their study shows many older people, including those over 80, continue to have active sex lives, although the frequency of sexual activities declines with increasing age.

Women appeared less dissatisfied with their overall sex life than men and reported decreasing levels of dissatisfaction with increasing age.

They say that older people’s sexual health should be “managed” not just in the context of their age, gender and general health, but also within their existing sexual relationship.


This study suggests not only that many older people are still sexually active, but that, like every other age group, they have worries and concerns about sex and relationships. Not surprisingly, ageing and failing health affect sexual activity.

Older men report worrying about getting erections, while women are more concerned with lack of desire. The study also reminds us that sexual problems have to be seen in the context of a relationship.

The study is, by definition, based on people self reporting on sex, which might undermine its reliability. It is possible that some people find it hard to be honest about such a sensitive area, even in a confidential questionnaire.

If you are an older adult and you are having problems with your sex life then there may be treatment options available. Read more about how you could have a fulfilling sex life as you get older.

Thanks for reading, let us know what you think in the comments below, or you can find us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram!

Facebook          Twitter         Insta

(Or subscribe to our newsletter)

What’s stopping you from having a HIV test?

If you’ve ever had sex without a condom and never had a HIV test, how do you know you’re HIV negative?

Regular readers of our blog will know what HIV is but what about people who know very little about HIV and why it’s important to get tested?

Put simply, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) gradually attacks your immune system, which is your body’s natural defence against illness.  If you were to become infected with HIV, you’ll find it harder to fight off infections and diseases.  It’s a progressive disease and unfortunately, it’s incurable but if caught early and given the right treatment, you’ll be fine.  Although you’ll need to make sure you watch your health and stay in touch with your doctor.

A lot of people think HIV is a death sentence, that’s simply not true (click this link to find out why) but if left untreated it will cause you some problems so it’s best to get tested for HIV at least once in your life, just to be sure.  There are many others who test regularly for HIV to keep their health in check.

About a quarter of people who have HIV don’t realise they have it, and it’s very likely that untreated HIV will be passed to other people.  That’s why we’re inviting YOU and everyone (in Leicestershire) who reads this to have a HIV test.  If you can visit us, great – we’ll be happy to give you a confidential test or if you prefer to test confidentially at home, that’s ok too!

You don’t always have to go to your doctor, a clinic or even a center like us.  There’s options for you to test privately at home too.  Think about the best HIV testing option for you.

We’re can’t tell you which is the right one, that’s down to you but if you would like to visit  us, we’re located at 53 Regent Road, Leicester. LE1 6YF (Here’s a map) or call us on 0116 2559995.  We can normally see people without booking appointments and you’ll get your result instantly.  (No waiting around)!

So, you have all the information you need to have a HIV test, what’s stopping you from having one?

Thanks for reading, let us know what you think in the comments below, or you can find us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram!

Facebook          Twitter         Insta

(Or subscribe to our newsletter)

Hetrosexual? – HIV Testing is for YOU too!

Prince Harry should be commended for taking an HIV finger-prick test live at a sexual health centre, part of Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospital in London. If the results of such a test were positive, the patient’s blood would be sent for further testing. Harry’s test (negative – or you’d probably already have heard about it, or never heard about it, as the case may be) was done to raise awareness about the number of people in Britain who are unaware that they’re HIV-positive (estimated at 11,000).

Article via 

For those who are old enough, it would have sparked memories of his mother, Diana, reaching out to people, back at a time when many still feared that the “gay plague” could be spread via the merest contact.


Princess Diana visited LASS in November 1991. Her visit launched the ‘Famous Friends of LASS’ initiative, with over 60 celebrities signing up to offer their voice and support for people living with HIV.

Now, we have Harry, continuing her work, and what a prince indeed: a red-blooded royal hottie!  While William completes his metamorphosis into a staple husband and future King.  Harry gets the playboy prince role. It was fitting that the royal poster boy for rampant heterosexuality should take the blood test, to drive it home that thinking of HIV as a “gay disease” is a dangerous mistake that, even today, in 2016, many straight people make.

Too many heterosexuals still seem stuck in a kind of finger-crossing/wistful thinking zone, or suspended in blissful oblivion about the possibilities of HIV infection. It’s a complicated fog of stupidity, denial and inept fear-management that I recognise only too well from my own experience, years ago, when I took my first HIV test.

(Article via Barbara Ellen at The Guardian)

I recall going to a clinic quite nonchalantly (probably making some smug pompous point about being sensible – perhaps expecting a medal), and then becoming increasingly unnerved as the counsellor and I totted up what I shall delicately refer to as my “risk factors” (I’ll spare you the gory details). At which point, it felt as though it would be a blessed miracle if I wasn’t infected.

To say it was stressful waiting for the results (and for the results of the confirmation test later) is an understatement. I ended up ringing the Terrence Higgins Trust hotline, bothering the kind volunteers (brilliant, by the way) with my relentless paranoid chuntering, which was embarrassing enough at the time. Years later, my shame intensified when I came to know people who were HIV-positive, and handling it with a lot more grace.

Looking back, it was a classic case of belated hetero-panic, doubtless aggravated by not taking the threat seriously enough in the first place.

I can’t help but wonder whether this is what a lot of straight people are still like about HIV and Aids – a bit thick, blinkered and naive (just like I was, strutting into that clinic)?

It seems odd that, from the initial peak-hysteria of HIV/Aids (hospital staff in biohazard suits, Aids adverts full of nightmarish crashing tombstones), the heterosexual mindset so swiftly segued into the blandly mainstream conviction that HIV had little to do with them – the exact kind of attitude that sees heterosexual people ranking among those prone to seeking out HIV tests and treatment late.

I’m not saying that heterosexual HIV-infection is special or that gay HIV-positive people are a more standardised group. Nor do I mean to ignore those infected by non-sexual means.

The point, as Prince Harry said, is for everybody to be tested. However, another point is that these tests, horribly daunting for everybody, may still verge on alien for people who’ve been deluding themselves that they aren’t at risk. That’s why it made so much sense for the heterosexual – perhaps this time more important than his being a prince – Harry to be shown taking that test.

Thanks for reading, let us know what you think in the comments below, or you can find us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram!

Facebook          Twitter         Insta

(Or subscribe to our newsletter)