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HIV Infection Rate Is Skyrocketing
  By BARBARA BORST The Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS (AP) - HIV and AIDS infection rates are skyrocketing in much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, with young people comprising the majority of new cases, the U.N. Children's Fund warned in a report released Wednesday.
Nearly 80 percent of newly registered infections from 1997-2000 in the Commonwealth of Independent States - the grouping of former Soviet republics - occurred among people under the age of 29, according to UNICEF's report, the Social Monitor 2002.
"HIV/AIDS has a young face in this region,'' UNICEF director Carol Bellamy said in a statement. "Young people account for most new infections and their low level of HIV awareness, combined with increasingly risky behavior, herald a catastrophe.''
The UNICEF report parallels earlier warnings from the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Open Society Institute, a charitable foundation active in Eastern Europe.
UNICEF reports that abuse of injected drugs accounts for most of the region's infections of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. However, it noted that sexual transmission is on the rise in Belarus and Ukraine.
The total number of infections in the region more than doubled from 420,000 in 1998 to 1 million in 2001. While that is small compared with the 28.5 million HIV-infected people in sub-Saharan Africa, the rate of increase in some Eastern European and CIS countries is the world's highest.
In Estonia, 38 percent of new infections occurred among those under age 20, and 90 percent among those under 30, the report states. The Baltic country's total rate of new infections - more than one in every 1,000 people - is 20 times the average for European Union countries.
The report cites the increase in substance abuse, early sexual activity and an increase in the number of sex workers as underlying reasons for the rising rate.
It recommends programs to educate people about AIDS prevention, ensure that schools address the issue openly and offer youth-friendly health care. Girls, the poor and others at risk should be especially targeted, it said.
UNICEF found that less than 70 percent of teenagers in Belarus, Ukraine and Latvia knew that condoms offered protection against HIV, while 97 percent of French teens and 87 percent of German teens were aware of that.
Some governments, especially among the former Soviet republics, traditionally have taken a punitive approach to drug use, sex work and homosexuality, the study says.
Lithuania's national action plan, launched in 1995, may have helped the country keep its HIV-infection rate down, the report says. The plan features services that are easily accessible for drug users, offer anonymous treatment and don't require abstinence from drug-taking as a condition for service.
Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova were the first countries in the region with rapid increases in HIV-infected people. Estonia and Latvia soon followed, and Kazakhstan appears to be on the same course.
"However, current trends in the spread of HIV do not suggest that the epidemic has reached its peak,'' the report states.
The high incidence of HIV and AIDS among children under 13 - 26 percent of all cases in the region - can be traced mainly to infections in Romania in the early 1990s through blood transfusions and other procedures, the report notes.
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