Russia is in the midst of an HIV epidemic, so why are so many of its websites calling it a myth?
Denial of HIV proliferated by online groups and forums stating that the virus is simply a myth is causing a devastating increase in the epidemic.
It's easier than ever to spread myths and falsehoods.
Russia has seen a consistent increase in the rate of new HIV cases and AIDS-related deaths, even as the rest of the world saw a decline.
Over 900,000 Russians are living with HIV today, with 10 new cases being reported each hour. And 80 die from AIDS-related issues each day.
Fewer than half of them are currently being treated for the infection, all because of a conspiracy theory that the AIDS-causing virus is a myth invented by the West.
With the Internet constantly spewing the denial of HIV, there have been many declines seen in people taking the drugs voluntarily. An online group claims that the virus is "the greatest myth of the 20th Century" while calling the drugs "poison" and doctors "killers" working to "enrich pharmaceutical companies". These online sites coach believers to deny treatment and some even have bizarre claims that the myth of AIDS intends to establish total control over the world's population.
While it's unclear how much of the increase in deaths is attributed to the dangerous messages loosely thrown about on the Internet, cases denying treatment has especially annoyed the health authorities.
"It's unacceptable in our day and age that children are dying while a range of treatment is available," Alexey Yakovlev, a leading doctor at Botkin hospital in Saint-Petersburg, told AFP. In August, a 10-year-old girl died at the hospital after her religious family repeatedly refused to treat her.
In this age of the Internet, where a mere Google search can provide desperate people comfortable untruths, it is difficult to fight off such fake claims.
Part of the reason why the HIV-myth has caught on is "Russians' love of conspiracy theories" and growing anti-Western rhetoric, says Yelena Dolzhenko, who works at Moscow-based AIDS prevention center, the SPID.Tsentr foundation.
Denialism as a concept is thoroughly sprouting, due to underfunded health systems, shortage of drugs, and public health campaigns touting 'family values' over condoms as the best prevention for HIV.
There are even posters that go on to show a couple embracing, with the caption "Be intimate only with the person you trust". However, about 30% of Russian women get HIV from their sole partners.
"These ads don't help, they make the situation worse, HIV denialism can be born from them," Dolzhenko said. "Imagine an Orthodox girl who went to church on Sundays, got married, and is told she is positive."
As HIV continues to be presented as an illness of druggies and "American gays", Dolzhenko said, "this girl is going to think that it has nothing to do with her".
Yekaterina Zinger, director of the Svecha foundation in Saint-Petersburg, says "The biggest reason (for people becoming denialists) is lack of consultation, they don't get enough information and begin to think that somebody is hiding something from them."
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