Since 1998 the number of registered HIV cases in Russia has increased twenty-fold, and Russia is unique in that 80% of its HIV population is under 30 years of age.
Since 1998 the number of registered HIV cases in Russia has increased twenty-fold, and Russia is unique in that 80% of its HIV population is under 30 years of age. BBC journalist Nigel Wrench, who is HIV positive, has been to St Petersburg to report on the spread of HIV there. I sat around a table in a St Petersburg tower block, drinking tea and eating sweets with some new friends. They are Alexei, 21 years old, Sergei, 25, and Slava, in his late twenties and wearing his trademark leather jacket. I was there to interview them for a television programme. A lack of a common language should have come between us. Instead a virus linked us together. Telling their stories We are all HIV positive: I was diagnosed 10 years ago, Slava three, Sergei a month ago and Alexei, just four days before we met. Alexei had a steely look in his eyes. He was a young man who had just been through an awful time, and yet he was able to tell this outsider his story. “No one asked me if I wanted an HIV test,” he said. “The doctor just handed me the results. I got tested when my Hepatitis C was really bad. “They put me in hospital and I stupidly told them where I lived and worked. “They told my work and I was fired straight away, and told the people I rented the flat from, so I was chucked out.” ‘Not mere junkies’ Being diagnosed is never easy, but I could barely imagine this experience. Alexei and Sergei now both sleep on the floor of the one room in the apartment that Slava can call his own. All three are former heroin users but, somehow, in St Petersburg, its use is about as common as marijuana among young people elsewhere. I had no sense of being among junkies. Far from it: Sergei and Alexei, who had only just met, already had plans to use Alexei’s Lada as a minicab to make money. Sergei was in the army when he was diagnosed. He was consigned to a special isolation ward for people with HIV. “The door to the room had a small window in it, at eye level, so doctors could check the patients,” he said. “People would come and stare at us from outside when we were eating. They would peep at us, as if we were animals in a zoo.” No medicine A friend of Slava’s took an overdose of heroin when he heard he was HIV positive. The friend died on the kitchen floor. Through all of this I sat with my HIV medication in my pocket, my guarantee of current good health. These young men say they will not have access to any medication at all, unless they are able to pay. The Russian authorities say treatment is both free and available. I saw no evidence of that. Hoping for long life Instead, that cold winter’s day in a tower block, I merely felt hopelessly guilty that my new friends, without outside help, will inevitably become ill and die. The thought was hardly bearable. And all this in a city about to spend 450 million on its 300th birthday celebrations. Journalists are not supposed to take sides. But as a human being that afternoon, I simply wanted my new friends to live the long life I have been lucky enough to have. (Source: BBC, Nigel Wrench, 15 May 2003)