Seeking global role in health


MOSCOW -- Vladimir V. Putin was Russia's president for three years before he mentioned AIDS in a state-of-the-nation speech - and then only in passing - making him the first Russian leader to do so.

Since his remarks in 2003, the disease has still not received the attention it seemingly requires from the country with Europe's largest number of HIV-infected people.

But when the Group of Eight summit begins Saturday in St. Petersburg, AIDS will be part of an international dialogue on the fight against infectious disease - at Russia's urging.

It not clear whether Russia's decision to highlight AIDS as a topic signifies an earnest commitment to fight the disease at home, or a way to win credit for addressing the global threat the disease poses without focusing on the domestic danger.

AIDS is expected to be one of many health issues discussed at the summit, including how to combat new threats such as avian flu, and older ones such as tuberculosis, measles and malaria. The World Health Organization is expected to ask for $30 billion from the G8 member states to fight TB over the next 10 years.

At an April meeting here of international health experts, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov called infectious disease "one of the most acute problems in health care."

In a joint statement, the health officials called for more aggressive efforts to detect and contain H5N1, the virus that causes bird flu, and to prepare for a possible human flu pandemic.

Zurabov also urged the creation of international rapid-response teams to be sent to areas affected by natural disasters, where public health facilities have been destroyed and the risk of disease is high.

Russia is seeking to be a global-health player. Trials for a bird flu vaccine are under way here, and last month the government approved spending more money at the Vektor Institute in Siberia, which is to house an influenza surveillance center.

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin recently announced that Russia will contribute $250 million for social development programs, including the fight against infectious disease, in Africa and Central Asia.

As proof of its commitment to public health, Russia has been quick to cite its $40 million pledge through 2008 to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The fund was created at the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa.

Russia is not just a donor of Global Fund money. As a nation facing an epidemic of HIV-infected drug users and a frighteningly high TB rate, it is one of the few countries that is simultaneously a recipient.

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