HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Ukraine

By Katia Tassone

On Wednesday, November 9, 2011, Sir Elton John announced a new charity project in Kyiv to help homeless women receive access to HIV and AIDS treatment. The project is being launched in partnership with the Ukrainian businesswoman Elena Pinchuk (the wife of the Ukrainian steel magnate and philanthropist Viktor Pinchuk), and it is targeted at homeless and street-involved girls and young women between the ages of 14 and 24. In particular, it aims to reach graduates of orphanages and vocational schools, residents of crisis shelters, women who have recently been incarcerated, and those working in the sex industry. The goal is to provide them with access to HIV testing as well as vital social, medical, and legal assistance.

The first project of this kind was initiated at the end of May 2007, when Elena Franchuk’s ANTIAIDS Foundation launched the new program “On The Edge” to help combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ukraine. In the spirit of collaboration, the Viktor Pinchuk Foundation and Elena Franchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation have now pledged a $2.5 million grant towards the five-year program of the Elton John AIDS Foundation in Ukraine.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ukraine is believed to be the worst in Europe. At the beginning of 2010, an estimated 360,000 people aged 15 and older were infected, with a prevalence of 1.3% among 15-49 year olds. Registrations at medical facilities show that only a quarter of all infected people are aware of their status. In contrast, the United Kingdom has an estimated 77,000 HIV positive residents, making up 0.2% of the adult population, with three quarters knowing they are infected. In both Russia and Ukraine, the epidemic is driven by intravenous drug use, with addicts accounting for around half of all cases. Other high risk groups include men who have sex with men, sex workers, prisoners, and street children.

Unfortunately, the Kyiv AIDS clinics, which ‘host’ patients with advanced AIDS and other diseases, especially tuberculosis, are full. It is estimated that less than one-fifth of Ukrainian HIV patients receive anti-retroviral treatment. Progress in treating the patients is very slow, due to political instability, little political commitment to the issue, ignorance, corruption, and an outdated medical and legal system. To make matters worse, the current administration does not seem interested in prevention programs. According to Andriy Klepikov, the head of AIDS Alliance Ukraine, ‘[t]here’s a line in the national AIDS programme budget for prevention, but its value is set at zero’.

Yet perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel. Ukraine’s government has recently agreed to a co-funding deal with the international organization Global Fund, amounting to $85m over the next two years. To be sure, widespread corruption may affect how much help the patients actually receive. AIDS Alliance claims that the government’s contribution will be spent almost entirely on medical treatment rather than prevention. ‘They usually procure medicines at a higher price than they need to’, says Mr. Klepikov. His suspicion is that kickbacks are at work.

One can only hope that Viktor Yanukovych will stop wasting tax payers’ money on ‘show trials’ and start investing much needed funds in the outdated healthcare industry.

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