To accompany feature AIDS Russia
Sergei Karpukhin  /  Reuters
Winner of Russia's first 'Miss Positive' beauty contest Svetlana Izambayeva applies lipstick in Moscow November 29, 2005. 
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 12/2/2005 1:15:11 PM ET 2005-12-02T18:15:11

MOSCOW — When Svetlana Izambayeva heard of the beauty contest held by Shagi (“Steps”) magazine, she decided to take part, despite thinking she had little chance of winning.

The contest sounded like something out of Maxim magazine — contestants sent their pictures into the magazine or posted them online, and the winner was chosen by the editors and readers.

Except for one glaring difference — Izambayeva, the 24-year old hairdresser and economics student from Cheboksary (400 miles from Moscow) who won the beauty contest and the prize of an MP3 player, is HIV-positive, just like all of the other contestants.

Her crowning as "Miss Positive 2005" on Thursday, timed to coincide with World AIDS Day, is one step in Russia’s gradual awakening to publicly facing the country’s rapidly growing HIV/AIDS problem.

Critical moment
In many ways, Russia finds itself at a critical moment in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

The number of officially registered cases of HIV infection is about 340,000, though most officials believe the real number to hover around one million.

More troubling than the number of cases is the rate at which HIV/AIDS is increasing. According to the Federal AIDS Center, which coordinates AIDS research and policy issues, the rate of infection has almost doubled in the past four years, from 121 to 231 people per 100,000 —making Russia the country with the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in Europe. The pattern of HIV transmission is also cause for alarm.

“The epidemic developed among drug users…[but] in the last two years, we’ve observed a different trend,” said Avet Khachatrian, Director of Programs in Russia for Transatlantic Partners Against AIDS. “We’ve observed an increased sexual transmission.”

Drug use was responsible for over 90 percent of HIV infections five years ago, while now heterosexual transmission is responsible for over 30 percent of all HIV infections, and there is “evidence that in many regions of Russia, sexual transmission has grown to 50 percent, or even more,” according to Khachatrian. The increase in sexual transmission means increased risk for the wider, non-drug using population.

Nevertheless, for many Russians, HIV and AIDS are still seen as illnesses that won’t affect “normal” people, and for many years, the fight against AIDS was not given a vocal public platform.

Divergent views on how to address issue
How to fight the recent trends is a matter of contention, though.

While non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and health workers often promote safe-sex practices as one significant tool in curbing the spread of HIV, they were recently shocked by a Moscow government-funded campaign which touted abstinence under the slogan, “There Is No Such Thing As Safe Sex.”

Furthermore, there is still significant opposition to harm-reduction programs, such as needle exchanges for drug users, which could make a significant impact in Russia, where such a large percent of HIV infections are caused by injected drugs.

There are reasons to be optimistic, though. President Vladimir Putin recently made a public announcement acknowledging AIDS as a serious problem facing the country, and declared that 2006 would see a massive budget increase for the fight against HIV/AIDS, from less than $5 million this year to $105 million.

The fact that Moscow felt the need to run a public campaign promoting AIDS awareness shows that authorities are beginning to recognize the necessity to raise public attention to the fact that HIV does not only pose a risk to what society considers to be marginal groups (drug users and commercial sex workers), but to the wider population as well.

Work to be done on education front
Efforts towards public awareness and education shows mixed results. Recent polls show an increasing number of Russians who feel knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS and feel comfortable working or living in close proximity to HIV-positive people.

On the other hand, over half said they it would be unacceptable to have their children attend school with an HIV-positive child in the class, and three-quarters responded that they would not buy food products from a seller who is HIV-positive.

The Miss Positive 2005 beauty contest is a good example of these mixed results. Today’s awards ceremony will be held behind closed doors - unlike Izambayeva, the other finalists were not willing to be publicly identified.

There is a consensus that the new federal AIDS budget must be allocated appropriately in order to make an impact.

In an interview with The Moscow Times (an English-language daily), Vladimir Pokrovsky, head of the Federal Aids Center, pressed for the necessity of a “long-term strategy, a 10 to 20 year plan.”

Khachatrian agreed, saying that in the development of a national AIDS program, “coordination is the key…[coordination] of all factors in the fight against AIDS — treatment, prevention for wider populations, and anti-stigma campaigns.”

'Open to the world'
As for Russia’s first HIV-positive beauty contest winner, Izambayeva plans to do her part as well.

“For me, winning the contest is a chance to help other HIV-positive people,” wrote Izambayeva in an email response to interview questions. She was diagnosed with HIV in 2002 after a seaside love affair, but now speaks candidly about her condition and is determined to show she has nothing to hide.

“I know many people who have hidden their HIV-positive status for years. I want to be an example, to show that you can be yourself, open to the world — and still be happy. Now I have the opportunity to say that to greater number of people.” Spoken like a true beauty queen.

Yonatan Pomrenze is an Assignment Editor in the NBC News Moscow bureau.  


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