Goodwill Ambassador Jessica Lange visits a clinic for children living with HIV in Russia.
By Elena Kharitonova and Sabine Dolan
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, 18 May 2006 – UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Jessica Lange is visiting the Russian Federation to help draw attention to the needs of vulnerable children, including those living with HIV and AIDS.
Like its neighbours in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Russia today is facing the world’s most rapidly expanding AIDS epidemic. Although there are about 334,000 officially registered cases of HIV infection, more than a million people in Russia may be living with the disease. The number of children born to mothers with HIV is reportedly rising dramatically.
Earlier this week, Ms. Lange visited a specialized HIV clinic for children in the small town of Ust-Izhora, near St. Petersburg. Upon her arrival, the two-time Academy Award-winning actress was treated to a performance by the clinic’s eager five-year-old patients.
“Contemporary methods of paediatric treatment can make the children forget about their disease,” said Dr. Evgeny Voronin, head of the Centre for Prevention and Treatment of HIV Infection in Pregnant Women and Children. “I could not even dream about such methods just several years ago.”
Fighting the stigma of HIV
Today, 40 orphans ranging from one to seven years of age live at the Ust-Izhora HIV centre.
The hospital that houses the centre opened in 1879. Since 1991, it has been operating as a research facility specializing in HIV/AIDS treatment. Perhaps symbolic of the persistent stigma attached to HIV and AIDS in Russia, the clinic’s new orientation drew strong opposition from the local population when it was announced.
In fact, the problem of stigma is one of the issues Ms. Lange is highlighting and trying to help address during her visit as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
“HIV is not a thing that can be fought by ignoring it,” she said during an interview on Russian television. “On the contrary, if you pretend that such a problem does not exist, it spreads very quickly.”
Children remain isolated
The majority of children born to mothers living with HIV in Russia are essentially orphaned, even if their parents are still alive.
Because up to a year and a half is required to diagnose possible HIV infection in a newborn baby, the children of mothers with HIV are not admitted to child care centres before the end of that period. Most of them live in specialized hospital wards, isolated from the rest of the world.
Later on, if HIV is not detected, they are moved to a Children’s Home, where they have very dim hopes of future adoption. Those who are found to be HIV-positive remain in the hospital or in an isolated unit at a Children’s Home.
On her continuing stay in Russia, Ms. Lange is visiting orphanages, schools and children’s hospitals where many children with HIV are languishing. On Sunday, she will take part in Russia’s ‘Golden Heart’ award ceremony recognizing individual efforts to serve humanity.