Posted on February 26, 2018
"Nika Ivanova was 18 when she first learned about HIV. By then, it was too late.
Sitting in a sterile clinic here on a sunny winter day—the late singer Freddie Mercury’s birthday, of all days—the doctor told her she would likely die, and that it was her own fault.
'I became a person of a second class,' the now 33-year-old psychologist told me as she brushed her short brown bob away from her eyes. 'He assumed I was a drug addict or a prostitute.'
But Ivanova was neither. Like most of her friends, the teenager who dreamed of one day becoming a doctor had never learned about safe sex or sexually transmitted diseases, in school or at home. She thought people contracted HIV only through unsafe drug use.
Ivanova’s light hazel eyes welled with tears as she left the doctor’s office that day, convinced her young life was over. But she did not die. Instead, she sought out information and treatment on her own. Fifteen years later, Ivanova is now an outspoken activist fighting to dispel widespread myths about HIV, educating Russians on the real risks so they might have a fighting chance.
It’s no easy feat: The Kremlin and its allies are pushing a socially conservative, hands-off, and often church-influenced approach to sexual and reproductive health, as well as drug policy. Fueling an epidemic, state policies and inaction have led to more cases than ever of Russians contracting or dying from HIV/AIDS. At least 14,631 Russians died from AIDS-related symptoms in the first half of 2017—an increase of more than 13 percent from the year earlier. Russia now hosts the largest HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which, along with the Middle East and North Africa, make up the world’s only two regions where the rate of HIV cases is rising.
'It’s explosive,' says Christopher Beyrer, an epidemiologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University who previously served as president of the International AIDS Society and helped run an anonymous HIV testing facility here in Moscow before pulling out due to Russian policy hostile to U.S. funding. 'The policies that they have been sticking to in the Russian Federation and attempting to impose in countries they seek to control are clearly not evidence-based,' he adds, calling the shocking rise in HIV rates a clear 'failure of policy and practice.'"