Image: Katya
Dmitry Lovetsky  /  AP file
Katya, 3, attends a drawing lesson at the Republican Hospital for Infectious Deseases, which specializes in treating HIV-positive children in Ust-Izhora outside St. Petersburg.
updated 11/30/2005 7:41:17 PM ET 2005-12-01T00:41:17

With her eager smile and delight in scrawling crayoned pictures, 3-year-old Katya seems the perfect image of an adored child. But a year ago she was all but abandoned, a victim of Russia’s neglect of children born to mothers with the AIDS virus.

She lay in a grim, remote hospital where nurses barely had time to feed her and other children, much less play with her. Once she was diagnosed with the virus, Katya was moved to a hospital specializing in treating young AIDS victims. When she was brought there, she didn’t talk, never smiled, feared other children and cowered when a light was turned on.

She was like “a scared little animal,” said Yevgeny Voronin, head of the Republican Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Ust-Izhora, outside St. Petersburg.

In the global war on AIDS that will be highlighted on Thursday — World AIDS Day — Katya can be counted as one of many small victories. But some 1,500 children of the 21,000 born to HIV-positive mothers in Russia have been abandoned, according to Deputy Health Minister Vladimir Starodubov.

Most children of women with HIV aren’t born infected, but they cannot be reliably tested for the virus until they are 15 to 18 months old, and many mothers abandon them in the belief that they and the babies will soon be dead. Other mothers are drug users and cannot take proper care of their children.

Russian law requires abandoned children to spend their first three years in so-called “baby houses,” where they are taught to walk, talk and interact with others.

But many such institutions refuse to take in children of mothers with HIV out of fear of contaminating other children and the personnel, leaving them to linger in hospitals where they were born.

Infection rates soaring
Since the Soviet collapse, AIDS has been spreading through Russia at a devastating pace due to weak anti-drug and prevention programs. At first it was driven by drug users’ infected needles; now sexual transmission has soared.

Russian authorities are slowly beginning to address the problem. In September President Vladimir Putin earmarked $105 million for fighting AIDS next year — a 20-fold increase. This fall Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church for the first time turned its attention to AIDS, launching a program to help its victims and prevent the spread the infection.

But critics say the statistics raise doubt about whether authorities are fully facing up to the threat. Starodubov says some 330,000 Russians have the virus, but UNAIDS experts say the true number tops 1 million in one of the world’s fastest spreading epidemics.

At Voronin’s hospital, 38 orphans get the same cocktail of AIDS drugs that is prevalent in the West, paid for by the state, and could end up living long and happy lives. Leaving the children in hospital wards with practically no care and education, he told The Associated Press, is “outrageous.”

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Yet he has little hope his orphans will find adoptive parents because of the stigma, which applies even to healthy children. So far, only one HIV-positive child from the hospital has been adopted, by a Russian man, while four diagnosed HIV-free have been adopted by foreign families.

Russian society is quick to reject those with HIV.

Slideshow: AIDS pandemic Sveta, 32, said doctors banned her two small children from the swimming pool in a St. Petersburg hospital after finding out her diagnosis.

“Every time I see them swimming there, I think that my kids would enjoy it so much,” said Sveta, who was infected after sharing needles with fellow drug-addicts. She asked that her last name not be used.

Mothers of these children complain that nurseries and kindergartens reject their kids out of fear and ignorance of how the virus is spread. Many say doctors refuse to examine their kids or insist on wearing gloves and masks.

AIDS experts have long said the virus cannot be spread through casual contact.

Yelena, 30, still hasn’t told her stepparents that she and her husband have the virus. Their 2-year-old daughter Dasha was recently diagnosed HIV-negative, but Yelena still struggles to get her into a nursery school. And overall, the future of the first generation of children born to Russians with HIV remains one of the country’s big challenges.

“Our society needs to change its attitude to HIV,” said Starodubov, the deputy health minister. “Unless we do it all together, not a single ministry, not a single government will be able to solve this problem from above.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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