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Russian Legislators OK Testing of Foreigners for AIDS Virus : Health: Vote in the lower house is nearly unanimous. But activists call the bill costly, discriminatory.

October 29, 1994|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russia's lower house of Parliament voted 247-1 Friday to require all foreigners who visit Russia to be tested for the virus that causes AIDS.

The bill, which sailed through the Duma on its second reading over the strenuous objections of AIDS activists, must still be passed by the upper house of Parliament and signed by President Boris N. Yeltsin.

But if it becomes law, the measure will require those coming to Russia for "work or study or other purposes" either to be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or to present a medical certificate showing that they are HIV-negative. Foreign residents of Russia who test positive for the virus could be deported.

AIDS activists, doctors and even an official in the Health Ministry criticized the measure Friday, saying it is costly and discriminatory, makes a travesty of medical privacy and violates international human rights conventions that Russia has signed.

Worse, they say, it will do nothing to stop the spread of AIDS in Russia.

"This might have been effective before, when Russians did not go abroad so much," said Nikolai Nedzelsky of the Russian Names Fund, which helps HIV-positive people. "Now many Russians are going overseas. . . . It's useless."

AIDS activist Kevin J. Gardner, co-founder of the Moscow-based Aesop Center, which has lobbied against the bill, called the measure "utterly unrealistic."

"AIDS is a convenient tool for . . . slamming foreigners and blaming them for the ills of Russian society," Gardner said. He argued that the money needed to test foreigners would be better spent on AIDS education programs, which are scanty here.

The head of the Duma health care committee that sponsored the bill, Bella A. Denisenko, has in the past called the testing of foreigners "a matter of state security."

"We should erect a civilized barrier against infected foreigners coming in," she said in June, when the bill was approved on its first reading, according to the Moscow Times newspaper.

"Those who don't want AIDS incidence in Russia to reach the level of Western nations should vote for the bill," she said.

Russia has so far been spared the worst ravages of the AIDS epidemic, although public health officials have said that skyrocketing rates of sexually transmitted diseases and widespread public disdain for condom use are likely harbingers of an AIDS explosion to come.

As of Aug. 15, 740 Russian citizens and 450 foreigners were officially listed as infected with HIV, and 110 people had died of AIDS. Activists say the real numbers are much higher, because many people who suspect they may be infected try to avoid contact with the Russian public health system.

"Discrimination occurs in 99% of cases" when HIV-positive patients are entered into the official roster, Nedzelsky said. Today, Russians are routinely tested for HIV without their knowledge or consent, and sometimes people who test positive for the virus are not informed of the results or are told they have another disease, such as hepatitis-B, he said.

Those who do test positive are often shunned, dismissed from their jobs or forced to move to another city, Nedzelsky said. The name and address of one AIDS patient in Siberia was broadcast by a local radio station, he said. And doctors in a Moscow suburb recently telephoned the parents of a 25-year-old man to inform them that their son had tested positive for HIV and was being sent to an AIDS clinic in the city, he said.

The new AIDS bill contains a clause that bans discrimination against HIV-infected people.

"It's a very good clause, but there is no mechanism for its implementation, and it doesn't say what happens if people do discriminate," Nedzelsky said.

Similarly, the bill "guarantees" free medical treatment for AIDS victims, but desperately underfunded Russian hospitals lack the money, medicines and expertise to make good on such a promise, he said.

Under a Soviet-era AIDS law, foreigners could be required to undergo testing. The law was applied sporadically, however, and usually against Africans, foreign students and some foreign workers. Infected people have been deported.

"This creates a false sense of security among Russians," said Irina Savelyeva of Aesop. "They believe that AIDS is connected only with foreigners, and without foreigners they will be safe."

The AIDS activists said they had not seen the final version of Friday's bill; Nedzelsky said lawmakers had refused to give it to them.

But a recent draft of the bill contained a clause that would allow authorities to test anyone deemed at risk of spreading HIV, Gardner said.

"The phrase is so unclear it could be taken to mean anyone--or whoever the authorities decide to target," he said. "If someone comes in for dental treatment, for example, and the dental worker thinks the person looks like a homosexual or a prostitute, the worker could demand that the person be tested or have a certificate."

The law would probably create a lucrative black market for fake medical certificates for those who are HIV-positive or who do not wish to be tested, he said.

Vadim Pokrovsky, the chief AIDS expert at the Health Ministry, said mandatory testing should be required only of blood donors. He expressed fears that lawmakers are moving toward allowing universal mandatory testing.

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