Alik, an independent and quick-witted 10-year old boy in Irkutsk, a region of east Siberia, Russia, has had his life turned upside down by the HIV epidemic. His mother died from an HIV-related infection, and Alik is HIV+ himself.
He is one of the nearly 600 children who have received services from the American Red Cross-funded HIV Care and Support Program that began in Irkutsk ten years ago, in early February 2003.
In Russia, a country of 143 million people, between 840,000 and 1.2 million are HIV-positive, according to a 2009 estimate by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization. That means Russia has one of the world’s highest percentages of HIV-infected people outside sub-Saharan Africa.
The Russian Red Cross in Irkutsk, with the support of the American Red Cross, decided to take on this problem and created a comprehensive program called, the Care and Support Project for People Living with HIV/AIDS. After its start in February, 2003, the program expanded in 2007 to a regional HIV initiative for Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia. This program, which currently reaches more than 170,000 people, is one of the longest-running international programs supported by the American Red Cross.
“In ten years, a lot has happened,” said Ramine Bahrambegi, an American Red Cross health delegate that oversees the program from Moscow. “There have been successes, there have been disappointments. And the problem is far from solved. But we can say that now the HIV epidemic is acknowledged and openly discussed in ways never imagined in 2003. Access to treatment and information has vastly improved. The Red Cross is giving hope and support and is truly saving lives.”
The program provides psychological, legal and social assistance and support to people affected by HIV/AIDS. One of the unique aspects is the care and support services offered by visiting nurses. These nurses provide nutritional, health, developmental and psychological support for pregnant woman with HIV and children born to HIV positive mothers. For children like Alik, the Russian Red Cross provides a family center for support as well as referrals.
Once Alik became involved in the visiting nurse program, he started taking early development classes and learned to talk at age 6. His academic struggles, due to prenatal encephalopathy and birth trauma, led to his home schooling, but he regularly meets with a Russian Red Cross psychologist and speech therapist. He has access to necessary medical treatment and hopes to eventually return to ordinary schooling. With continued participation in this program, his counselors believe this is possible.
“This Initiative represents the best of the Red Cross,” said Bahrambegi. “It takes collaboration and partnership and approaching an issue as challenging as HIV in a comprehensive way. People are getting the services and support they need the most in a warm and dignified environment. Ten years is something to celebrate. I’m excited to see where our partnership with the Russian Red Cross goes next”.