Russia’s abandoned HIV children
Russia has one of the fastest growing Aids epidemics in the world, with 100 new infections every day. Increasingly, women and their infants are being affected.
Latest figures show 22,000 babies have been born to HIV-positive women. And many are being abandoned by their mothers into the care of the state.
The four babies in the maternity ward in the city of Tver were just a few days old and blissfully content.
But two of them had been abandoned by their HIV-positive mothers, who were either too ashamed or unable to cope.
They ought soon to have been heading to one of Russia’s regular baby orphanages, but the two newborns are likely to be stuck here in this state-run infectious diseases hospital instead.
If they are lucky it will be only for 18 months – the time it takes doctors in Russia officially to diagnose whether children are HIV-positive.
Most babies born to women who are HIV-positive do turn out to be free from the virus.
But if HIV is detected, the babies could end up being here a lot longer. Russia is quick to reject those with HIV.
In another part of the hospital, we found Tanya sitting in her dressing gown in a nurse’s office, doodling happily away. She was three-and-a-half years old and had been living here all her life.
Tanya had never played with another child and had only been outside once or twice.
The staff told us that because she was HIV-positive, there was nowhere else for her to go, an outcast whom nobody seemed to want.
In this region, there were 23 new cases of children confirmed with HIV last year alone – and sadly, we discovered that Tanya’s case was not unique.
Yury Loshkarov, in charge of Tver’s health department, admitted that there were other children living in its hospitals because no orphanage wanted to take them.
"If they’re abandoned, they stay in a hospital," he said.
In Russia, some 20 babies are born every day to HIV-positive women, with two of those, on average, abandoned by their mothers.
We spoke to Olga, who found out a year ago that she was HIV-positive.
Modern drugs are widely available which can dramatically reduce the chances of mother-to-child transmission. Too many women, though, are still unaware of the treatment.
She is now 22 weeks pregnant and told us that she was determined to keep her baby, despite huge pressure.
"In my clinic, doctors treat me differently. They are still trying to convince me against pregnancy.
"When I ask questions they don’t reply – they just shout at me. Even my grandmother thought that people with HIV should be sent to an isolated island."
Her experience helps explain why so many women give up their children.
Love and compassion
Russia is belatedly pouring millions of dollars into tackling this epidemic. The biggest challenge is changing attitudes.
It is bad enough living with HIV, but what hope if you are young, orphaned and infected?
If Tanya is lucky, she will get a place at the Republican Hospital for Infectious Diseases in St Petersburg.
It has proper medicine and specially trained staff. Most of all, there is love and compassion to help bring children’s emotions alive.
But there are fewer than 40 places for the whole of the country.
We watched one of the afternoon lessons – a visit to a make-believe corner shop. This was just one of the ways to prepare the young patients for the real world outside.
Five-year-old Dima preferred to sit quietly at the back. He spent three years isolated in a hospital ward, and then was eventually separated from his little brother when he was finally diagnosed as HIV-negative.
Yelena Vedmed, the hospital’s deputy head, said it was a trauma he may never be able to forget.
"Absolutely all the children that came here had developmental problems. Many of them were locked up for several years in isolated hospital wards.
"They were basically ignored and abandoned. Two-year-old children had the developmental level of a six-month-old baby."
Their progress has been remarkable. This, however, was only supposed to be a temporary haven. But the staff are wondering if these children will ever be accepted by the outside world.
"About a year and a half ago a new law was introduced which obliged orphanages to accept them. We tried once – at an orphanage near by," Ms Vedmed said.
"But after we went there, we realised that the level of Aids-phobia is so high that our child would be isolated again, so we didn’t give this child away."
She has called for a massive public relations campaign to explain to Russians that HIV-positive people are no different from anyone else.
"Maybe when people see how wonderful and talented our children are, this may change their attitude," she said.
But that will take time – something that Russia currently does not have.
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