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Researchers Warn about AIDS in Eastern Europe

Of the 280,000 new AIDS infections in Europe during the past year, more than 200,000 were reported in areas formerly belonging to the Soviet bloc. The figures are triggering alarm bells among researchers.

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An AIDS infected woman is helped by a nurse in a desolated hospice in the Ukraine.

"In Poland, we’re observing completely new strains of the virus that are coming here from the East," said Andrzej Horban, the deputy chairman of the 9th annual European Aids Conference, which took place this week in Warsaw.

"Most of the new infections, even in Western Europe, have come from immigrants. They’ve been infected in their home country and then they come to Poland because we’re going to become a member of the European Union," he said.

More than 2,500 researchers from 44 countries convened in Warsaw this week for the conference, which reviewed the state of AIDS research and offered advice on measures that can be taken to prevent the further spread of the deadly disease. Discussion on the disease's rapid spread in Eastern Europe dominated much of the conference. At its close, the delegates issued a warning that, without effective preventative public health policies, Eastern Europe could face an AIDS epidemic on the scale of that which has plagued Africa in the new millennium.

The chronicle of a story foretold

The difference this time, said Belgian AIDS research Nathan Climek, is that no one can say they didn’t know anything about the disease. The large number of deaths in Africa from AIDS were predicted by AIDS researchers in the 1980s, and the same now holds true for Eastern Europe.

"The people who are dying in Africa today were infected 20 years ago," says Climek. "If you go back and read the newspapers from ’85, ’86 and ’87, you can read our predictions. But nobody believed us. In the first years after infection, people remain totally healthy, and they look healthy, too. Why should people have been disquieted? But now we know that every single person will get sick within 10-15 years. And that’s why people have gotten active in Africa – suddenly hundreds of thousands are dying. In Central and Eastern Europe the patients aren’t dying yet because they only got infected five or six years ago. But in 10 years, hundreds of thousands will die in the hospitals if they are treated today."

Nonetheless, there are signs that awareness is changing, said Ukranian AIDS expert Tatjana Loginova, and countries like hers are moving to control the disease and prevent it from destroying future generations. The Ukraine recently received €93 million in international funds for use in its fight against AIDS. But treatments are also needed for the illnesses that accompany AIDS, like tuberculosis.

Living longer, dying with dignity

"You have to build up a patient list and a list of medications that need to be purchased for AIDS sufferers," she said. "For the sick who aren’t going to be treated with anti-retrovirals you have to ensure that medications are given for secondary infections like tuberculosis. And for the third group, the terminally ill, you’ve got to create hospices where they can die in dignity."

Still, treatment is expensive and unattainable for many. It costs $10,000 a year to delay the breakout of AIDS in someone who is HIV infected. That's why discussion of prevention measures also played a key role at the conference.

"Prevention is effective," said Christina Katlama, the conference's organizer and chairwoman. "We’ve learned that from experiences in other countries like Poland, Thailand and Brazil. Prevention is effective and relatively fast, too. That’s why it’s worth it. An HIV patient is an expensive citizen."

And those are lessons, Katlama and the other participants at the European AIDS Conference are hoping will be taken by Eastern Europe -- which could face a serious and devastating crisis if it is unable to bring its HIV infection rates under control.

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