A country where HIV is largely ignored — and anything discussing queer identity is outlawed — might just pass a law to tackle AIDS denialism.
A report in The Lancet claims that the Russian Federation is aiming to stem the country’s rising tide of AIDS denialism through legislation that would make AIDS denialism a crime. AIDS denialism is a term that encompasses a few different (absolutely false and unscientific) beliefs, including the belief that HIV does not exist and the belief that HIV exists, but that it does not cause AIDS.
According to The Lancet, the number of AIDS denialist groups in Russia is growing, with one online community on the Russian social network VKontakte boasting 16,000 members. Russia’s health ministry put forward legislation at the end of April that would make it illegal to spread misinformation about HIV, including denying its existence or denying it can cause AIDS if left untreated. The ministry called the beliefs “socially dangerous.”
Russia has one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world, driven largely by injection drug use in a highly stigmatized and criminalized environment. In a country of about 144 million people, over 1 million people are currently living with HIV, with an adult HIV prevalence rate of about 1.2%, according to Avert. For comparison, the United States’ HIV epidemic is around a similar size, though the U.S. has a population of about 327 million. And, while the reported numbers are similar, the Russian Federal AIDS Center estimates that as many as half the people living with HIV in Russia don’t know that they have the virus. Also, Russia added about 100,000 new HIV infections in 2017, compared to the United States’ 38,700 the same year. HIV rates in Russia continue to rise, while falling overall in the United States.
Russia’s history with AIDS denialism starts with a disinformation campaign begun in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union spearheaded a fake news campaign about HIV, calling it an American-made weapon of biological warfare, according to NPR. A 1986 report from Russian biophysicist Jakob Segal calling AIDS “human-made” was picked up by many Russian press outlets, and even some in the U.S. Historian Douglas Selvage told NPR that this birthed a “cycle of misinformation,” in which American conspiracy theorists would cite KGB sources — and vice versa.
Complicating Russia’s HIV epidemic even further is its infamous ban on LGBTQ information, which the law calls “propaganda.” The law, signed by president Vladimir Putin in 2013, bans any materials that make explicit reference to queerness or queer communities, meaning that any health material that could help queer people learn about HIV is considered criminal.
In a statement to TheBody, Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of Russian LGBTQ+ activist group RUSA LGBT, said, “Russia has denied the AIDS epidemic and has not issued any reports on HIV for multiple years. Russia has shut down a lot of HIV programs crucial to people’s survival.”
Gorshkov continued, “Concerning LGBTIQ people with HIV, there is a double stigmatization and discrimination because of the propaganda law and anti-queer politics.”
The Lancet also reported that there have been recent deaths in Russia due to AIDS denialism. According to one NGO’s records covering the past four years, 84 HIV-positive people have died after refusing treatment, including 17 children.
Meanwhile, how misinformation is policed worries some public health experts. Closing internet forums could lead to “increased distrust” for governmental institutions and could be interpreted as a state-run attack on speech. Also, by driving denialists underground at the same time the Russian government shuts down HIV education and prevention programs, this may end up giving the denialists more power and influence in the long term.
“Deniers may interpret it as an attack against them and a way to hide the truth according to their conspiracy beliefs,” one researcher said.