Russia: Looking Toward a Positive Future

It's not a beauty pageant that little girls dream of winning. But Svetlana Izambayeva, 24, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2002, felt a need to enter Russia's Miss Positive 2005, an Internet beauty pageant solely for HIV-positive girls. "We will never have any progress until we give HIV a voice and a face," she says. "I thought I could be that face."

By winning the pageant last week, Izambayeva now is. Up to a million Russians are infected with the disease, and that number is growing fast--especially among young heterosexual women. The World Bank recently predicted that at current levels of infection, there will be 5.4 million HIV-positive people in Russia by the year 2020.

The government is starting to take the problem seriously. Last week it upped AIDS funding twentyfold, to $100 million a year. Some of that will go to treating Russia's 1,500 AIDS orphans, but the bulk will go to raising AIDS awareness. The move is a step in the right direction, says Deputy Health Minister Vladimir Starodubov, "but our biggest problem remains society's attitude toward people infected. No funding can change that."

AIDS in Russia is still surrounded by ignorance and deep social stigma. A recent poll showed that 59 percent of Russians wouldn't allow their children to study in the same class with infected kids. Izambayeva has felt the effects of that stigma firsthand. "I am still afraid that when I go back to my hometown, people will shun me," she says.