Less than half of Russians with HIV are taking the necessary antiretroviral drugs, in part due to a conspiracy theory that’s running rampant through the country. Basically, many Russians refuse to believe HIV and AIDS are real, instead choosing to believe that they are a myth invented by the West.

Antiretroviral Drugs to Treat HIV Infection. Credits: NIAID.

As the world marks the World Aids Day on 1 December, many people have been fooled by a cruel conspiracy theory. HIV/AIDS denialism is the belief — thoroughly contradicted by conclusive medical and scientific evidence — that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The conspiracy theory comes with slight variations, with some believing that HIV doesn’t exist at all, while others claiming that HIV exists but it does nothing to cause AIDS. In South Africa especially, AIDS denialism has been prevalent, with researchers attributing over 300,000 AIDS-related deaths, along with 171,000 other HIV infections and 35,000 infant HIV infections, to the South African government’s former embrace of HIV/AIDS denialism. Now, this worrying trend is picking up steam elsewhere in the world.

In Russia, 900,000 Russians are living with HIV today, with 10 new cases emerging every hour. While globally, HIV rates have been slowly going down, in Russia (and much of Eastern Europe), they are growing alarmingly fast. National health interventions have been almost non-existent, and public awareness and support are very low, as is the national trust in doctors. Within this unfortunate social situation, a pseudoscience cult has started to emerge. People often don’t even learn about proper treatment options and sometimes refuse treatment altogether.

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“It’s unacceptable in our day and age that children are dying while a range of treatment is available,” said Alexey Yakovlev, head doctor of the Botkin hospital in Saint-Petersburg, where a 10-year-old girl died in August after her religious parents repeatedly refused to treat her.

HIV cases have dropped worldwide, but in some parts of the world, things are starting to get worse. Credits: NIAID.

A positive diagnosis handled badly is how denialism most often begins. Without psychological support and often seeing the diagnosis as a “you only have a few years to live” sentence, patients often turn to alcohol and drugs — but even more often, they turn to the internet. As you’ve probably happened to see in your day to day life, the internet isn’t really a regulated space where you’re guaranteed to find accurate, scientific information. Quite the contrary: proper science and pseudoscience often emerge side by side, and sometimes, all you need to convince people on the internet is scream loud enough. So instead of reading accurate information about HIV, AIDS, and treatment options, you might read that AIDS is a divine punishment or something that derives from anal sex. You might learn that you need a silver enema or to put jade eggs in your vagina. Perhaps there’s a “miracle cure,” usually something simple like a fruit. In short, you might read all sorts of crap on the internet, and when you’re under the tremendous pressure which comes with a harsh diagnosis, you might fall for it. Things only get worse when celebrities start advocating such pseudoscience.

In Russia, one such celebrity is Olga Kovekh, a former military doctor, currently employed as a physician in a clinic in Volgograd. According to The Independent, she’s expressed doubts about the existence of pneumonia, vaccines, and even suggested that TB could be treated with proper administration of ham sandwiches. Of course, she addressed HIV too, reportedly stating that HIV drugs are poison.

“One goal of the AIDS myth is decreasing the planet’s population to two billion by establishing total control” through vaccinations, she said. Along with similar-minded people, she presents HIV as an American invention, something which only happens to “druggies” and “gays.” This only helps fuel denial. If you believe the propaganda, you’re not a druggie and you’re not gay, you might have a hard time understanding how this happened to you — and like a vicious cycle, it goes on and on.

“The biggest reason (for people becoming denialists) is lack of consultation,”said Yekaterina Zinger, director of the Svecha foundation in Saint-Petersburg.. “People don’t get enough information and begin to think that somebody is hiding something from them.”

“The temptation to believe that it’s a myth is very high,” she said, especially for heterosexual people that are not in risk groups commonly associated with HIV that “don’t understand how it happened to them”.

With proper medication, many cases of HIV infection can result in normal or almost normal life expectancy years. But without it, the disease can be indeed a sentence. Russia is one of the leaders when it comes to HIV testing, with 25 million tests administered last year. But with a shortage of available treatment, and with pseudoscience running amok, the country might be on the verge of a health crisis.