Op-ed: Vladimir Putin's AIDS Crisis

While a plane went down in Ukraine carrying several HIV and AIDS advocates likely due to Russian-backed separatists, Russia grapples with its own spike in HIV cases.

BY Theo Milonopoulos

July 24 2014 7:45 AM ET

On Sunday 12,000 of the world’s top scientists, physicians, advocates and other experts convened in Melbourne, Australia, to open the 2014 International AIDS Conference, an annual gathering dedicated to the  prevention, treatment and eradication of one of the most pervasive infectious diseases afflicting young gay men like me at home and abroad.

Six leaders in HIV and AIDS research, treatment and advocacy, however, never made it.

Among the 298 victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 who lost their lives Thursday when Russian-backed separatists allegedly gunned down the airliner from the sky was Joep Lange, a pioneer in the field who had been researching the virus since 1983 when first cases of HIV/AIDS emerged into public consciousness.

According to obituaries eulogizing this prominent former president of the International AIDS Society, Lange was the architect and principal investigator of several pivotal trials in antiretroviral therapy and the prevention of mother-to child HIV transmission in the developed and developing world.

Aboard a plane that U.S. intelligence agencies assess was shot down by a missile fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Lange perished alongside Jacqueline van Tongeren of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development; Glenn Thomas, a spokesman for the World Health Organization; Pim de Kuijer of Stop AIDS Now; and Lucie van Mens and Maria Adriana de Schutter, both of AIDS Action Europe.

Their untimely deaths come on the heels of headlines documenting historic progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS at home and abroad. On the eve of the gathering in Melbourne, the American Medical Association released a study showing that, based on data collected in all 50 states, the HIV infection rate diagnosed in the United States had fallen by a third over the last decade (though the rate for young gay and bi men has increased significantly).

The day before Flight 17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally announced that it had approved the first drug, Truvada, to reduce the risk of HIV infection among uninfected individuals who, like me and all other men who have sex with men, are considered to be at high risk for HIV infection.

The FDA announcement came after a May recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that uninfected gay men and others who may be at high risk for HIV infection begin taking pre-exposure prophylaxis prescription drugs like Truvada as but one tool alongside others like condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.

This news was greeted by the LGBT community with almost dangerous self assurance. The Advocate's March cover story asked whether San Francisco could become the first AIDS-free city. The cover of this week’s New York magazine features a photograph from a gay men’s circuit party with the headline “Forgetting HIV.”

Given all of this progress, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have concluded that the deaths of these researchers, workers, and advocates aboard flight 17 were expendable.

The chaos his Kremlin has wrought in eastern Ukraine contributed directly to the untimely demise of these innocent investigators who may have held the keys to eradicating an infectious disease that plagues Putin’s own country.

During Friday’s emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power suggested that even if Russia were not directly implicated in the firing down of a civilian aircraft, the destabilizing actions that Moscow has fomented by supplying pro-Russian separatists with military-grade munitions created a perfect storm over eastern Ukraine into which Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 unwittingly flew.

The United States, Power asserted, “cannot rule out” technical assistance separatists might have received from Russian agents to operate what are complex surface-to-air missile systems like the one targeting Flight 17.

Power’s Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, spoke before the same body and placed the blame of the plane’s downing squarely on Ukraine’s government in Kiev. His message to reporters was consistent when he said, “We didn’t do it.”

Let’s hope not, because if the Kremlin did indeed have any role in firing down Flight 17, it did so at its own peril.

After spending over $50 billion to host this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Moscow has persistently denied even the existence of a crisis as Putin’s Russia is ravaged by spiraling HIV infection rates and discrimination against those who live with the virus.

Over the same decade when U.S. infections fell by a third, new HIV infections in Russia skyrocketed by more than 40 percent, according to a 2013 report by Bloomberg Markets, ranking ninth in the world alongside developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa with the world’s highest HIV/AIDS infection rates.

Today there are an estimated 820,000 people with HIV eligible for antiretroviral treatment in Russia, but according to UNAIDS’s 2013 Global Report on the disease, an estimated 10 percent of these individuals are denied health or dental services to manage their condition.

According to the same UNAIDS report, Russia joins Uganda, South Sudan the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and South Africa on a list of 30 countries where individuals are routinely denied antiretroviral treatment by their governments.

These realities have been compounded by the Kremlin’s adoption last year of an antigay Russia “propaganda” law that will do doubt drive gay men vulnerable to HIV infection further underground and prevent them from seeking the counseling and treatment they need, a problem Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, alluded to in the pages of The Washington Post in March taking place on the African continent.

This alarming trend is reinforced by our nation’s own retreat from funding HIV and AIDS research and prevention abroad. Last year the Obama administration proposed cutting $50 million from the 2014 budget of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a Bush-era initiative that has already experienced over 12 percent in funding cuts since 2010, according to statistics reported last year by the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

During a White House news conference Friday, President Obama paid homage to the AIDS researchers and advocates who lost their lives on Flight 17. The best way to honor their memory would be to restore funding to PEPFAR and ensure that Putin’s nefarious interference in eastern Ukraine comes to an immediate end.

THEO MILONOPOULOS, a PhD student on leave from Columbia University, was most recently a write-in candidate to succeed Henry Waxman in representing California's 33rd district in the United States Congress.

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