Several members of the HIV/AIDS research community were killed when a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine.
Reports have said that 100 of the passengers may have been en route to the 2014 International Aids Conference in Melbourne, Australia. However, the conference organisers have only been able to confirm seven names, according to The Washington Post. But among those killed included world renowned HIV researcher Joep Lange.
Ukraine and neighbouring Russia, are home to the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world, fuelled by the Russian government’s irresponsible policies.
“We’ve made a lot of progress around the world, but Russia is a basket case when it comes to HIV,” leading AIDS activist Gregg Gonsalves told Business Insider. “AIDS rates are going down in many places in Africa and other places. In Russia they continue to skyrocket.”
Much of the epidemic in Eastern Europe is fuelled by shared dirty needles used to inject drugs. Since the 1980s, needle exchanges and opiate substitution therapies, like methadone or buprenorphine, “have saved the lives of millions of injecting drug users worldwide in the past 30 years,” Michel Kazatchkine, UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, recently wrote in BMJ.
But in 1997, both treatments were outlawed in Russia.
“This is old Soviet thinking about drug use and infectious disease that didn’t go away with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Perestroika. Basically they are still operating in these Cold War approaches to public health. It’s incredibly sad,” said Gonsalves. “There are lots of people on the ground there who are trying to do good things, lots of NGOs and people working despite the harassment by the government, but the state response is just abysmal.”
Unlike Russia, Ukraine has allowed opiate substitution therapy since 2006. But when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine several months ago, opiate substitution therapy was outlawed in the region, and no longer accessible to those who need it. “Politics has won out over science — and doctors, scientists, and humanitarians are right to feel abhorrence that a new human tragedy has been imposed on Crimea,” wrote Kazatchkine.
Without access to these prevention methods, rates of HIV/AIDS are expected to continue to rise. The sad irony is: These researchers lost their lives in the place that needs them the most.
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