The city where she lives (Irkutsk in southern Siberia) has one of the highest AIDS rates in Russia. Over 15,000 of the 285,000 officially registered Russians infected with HIV live there. Irina came to Thailand for the 15th International AIDS Conference not only as "a person living with HIV" (the politically correct name for HIV patients), but also as a Red Cross volunteer. She is involved in HIV prevention programs for drug addicts and consults HIV positive pregnant women . "I was a drug addict for seven years," she said. "I contracted the virus by injecting drugs. Now I want to help pregnant women with HIV give birth to healthy children."
Russia has made a definite progress in this area. In an interview with RIA Novosti, Russia's chief sanitary physician, Gennady Onishchenko, said that the number of cases when the virus is passed from mother to child during pregnancy and labor has decreased in Russia. "International experience is instrumental here," he said.
Now, Irina is living and enjoying her life. She refuses to take antiretroviral therapy. "I am not ready yet to take these drugs all my life and depend on them," she confessed.
"Discrimination against HIV positive patients? I know it exists in many countries," she said. "I have not encountered it either at work or at home. All my relatives know about my illness. I warn my doctors about the virus. People around me appreciate my honesty and offer help. I feel more comfortable now than in the beginning of my illness."
Andrei, a 34 year old from the same city as Irina, stressed: "I am ready now to openly admit that I am HIV positive. People at work - I was trainedas an engineer and give lectures at the institute - might treat me differently then. But it is more important for me to overcome the barrier and tell people about my illness."
Andrei learned about his illness in 1999. By that time, he had already been taking drugs intravenously for eight years. In Russia, 76% of HIV patients contract the virus by sharing needles. "I told the truth to my mother and sister, and since then we kept my dishes separately," he said. All this is because of insufficient knowledge. But I understand my family.
"When I learned about my illness, I felt angry, desperate and lonely. I did not want to do anything because I thought I would die soon anyway. Doctors convinced me of the opposite, they supported me. Soon I went to work at a rehabilitation center for drug addicts. Of course, I stopped taking drugs. I received a second degree in psychology. So, the illness did not quite knock me out."
Anya from St. Petersburg, another of Russia's AIDS centers, was searching for Russian journalists in the crowd of reporters. "I want to tell them my story," she said. "From the age of 16, I lived with a drug addict and contracted the disease through sex." Today, 12% of HIV patients are infected this way. The number of heterosexually transmitted AIDS cases continues to grow. "I am 20 now and I have a normal family - a healthy husband and a one-year-old child," she said.
When the doctor told Anya that she was HIV positive and the local AIDS center confirmed the diagnosis (there are 120 such centers in the country), she "did not want to live." Neither her friends nor her family knew about her situation. "My husband did not leave me," she said. "I found people who had the same problems. Now, my friends and I help prevent sex workers [a politically correct term for prostitutes] from contracting AIDS."
According to Anya, she knows people who know what it is like to carry the so-called stigma of being HIV positive. "They are drug addicts," she said. "Not every doctor will agree to treat them. People say they have themselves to blame. True, they are to blame, but society should realize that the AIDS epidemic can affect everyone, even healthy and innocent people."