Senior Scholar Warns of Impending AIDS Crisis in Russia

Jan 07, 2005

by Stephanie Burns

Ever since Senior Scholar Murray Feshbach, while working as a part of five different groups under the US-USSR Agreement on Science and Technology, realized that the statistics he had been given by the Russian government describing mortality rates were far too low to be accurate, he has pursued a robust interest in studying what he found to be a major health crisis in Russia. Over the course of his study, Feshbach has narrowed the major cause of the crisis to an increasingly specific list of diseases and the general disregard of the Russian government for controlling health threats. Recently, however, Feshbach has discovered what he believes to be the most direct reason for the crisis: an outbreak of HIV and AIDS potentially more serious than the epidemic that is occurring in Africa, due to the possible social and political consequences of a country replete with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. With this new information Feshbach has begun to issue a warning to Russia and the world that the potential demise of this failing country looms near and its slow destruction would impact the globe. Now, Feshbach's greatest challenge is proving to the politicians in control of Russia that they desperately need to change their health policy if they expect to salvage this dying population.

"The man who for decades has paid the closest attention to the Russian population crisis is not even Russian; his name is Murray Feshbach, and he works in Washington, D.C.," writes Michael Specter in the October 4 issue of the New Yorker. Specter covered the AIDS crisis in India in 2001 and the AIDS crisis in Africa in 2003. His investigative report this October was a 13-page spread on the AIDS crisis in Russia. He turned to Feshbach for answers.

In the article, Feshbach reports that, in 2002, only 11 percent of men called to serve in the Russian army were fit for duty and five thousand draftees tested positive for HIV and were turned away. Feshbach refers to the Russian military situation as "prosto koshmar," which is Russian for "simply a nightmare." Feshbach warns readers that Russia's situation is escalating into a potential threat to United States national security. He points out that Russia views itself as a superpower and soon, with the deterioration of its army, will only be able to hold onto that idea through weapons of mass destruction.

In May, the Biomedical Research Center gave Feshbach the annual award from the 12th International Conference on HIV/AIDS, Cancer and Related Problems for his studies in Russian environmental, demographic and health problems. For Feshbach, this was one of the highest honors ever bestowed upon him. He sees it as a sign that he is finally breaking through the wall of defense Russian leaders have constructed to guard the sensitive issue. The offhanded manner with which pride-driven politicians in Russia have regarded Feshbach's research for decades is disintegrating and his words are finally reaching government agencies that can do something about it.

This October, the Wilson Center honored Feshbach's 75th birthday with a seminar on the public health problems confronting Russian society. Included in the celebration was a discussion by a panel of experts on Feshbach's contribution to general awareness of the health and AIDS issues in Russia. At the seminar, panel participants discussed Feshbach's research and offered their own views and findings.

Feshbach has recently completed a report for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in which he is attempting to prove that the official number of deaths in Russia is severely underreported (if you are interested in receiving a copy of this report, contact Murray Feshbach.) The origin of this underreporting? A flawed grading system and constrained definitions established by the leading epidemiologist in Russia which led to a major understatement of the number of deaths from AIDS associated with infections. Russians who die from complications due to AIDS often do not have the disease listed as part of the cause of death. The Russian government reports a cumulative total of 4,400 deaths from HIV/AIDS, when the number is actually closer to 7,000 to 10,000, according to unpublished calculations by Feshbach. Feshbach concludes the political, military and health leadership have been apathetic toward the issue of HIV and AIDS until now.

In Feshbach's 2003 book Russia's Health and Demographic Crises: Policy Implications and Consequences, he mentions heart disease, substance abuse, and environmental health hazards as contributors to the falling population and health levels in Russia. When asked about these additional factors' relevance in his current USAID report, Feshbach says they are not nearly as important as he once thought.

"When I wrote that book I think I did not fully understand the issue and that's only a year and a half ago," said Feshbach.

The real issue is AIDS.

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