Feature story

Russian regional AIDS centres leading the fight against COVID-19

14 May 2020

The network of the Russian Federation’s more than 100 AIDS prevention and control centres, established in 1989 to respond to HIV, has been mobilized to support the country’s fight against COVID-19.

Each of the centres, which specialize in HIV surveillance, prevention, testing and treatment, has high-technology laboratory equipment, highly qualified health staff, including infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists, and expertise in epidemiological surveillance and contact tracing. Those centres are now using their technology and expertise on HIV testing and diagnosis to scale-up testing for COVID-19.

Public health experts at the AIDS centres are also supporting epidemiological surveillance and contact tracing, using the approaches developed for HIV. Many of their doctors and nurses have been seconded to medical teams dedicated to providing care for people with COVID-19.

“Many AIDS centres across the country have repurposed their laboratories to also diagnose coronavirus, but provision of quality medical care for people living with HIV continues,” said Natalia Ladnaia, Senior Researcher at the Central Research Institute of Epidemiology of Rospotrebnadzor, Russian Federal AIDS Centre.

In order to ensure the continuity of HIV services, many AIDS centres are working closely with community organizations to provide online counselling, deliver antiretroviral therapy to people living with HIV to their homes and address mental health challenges, which have grown since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Community activists from Novosibirsk representing the Ostrov and Humanitarian Project nongovernmental organizations, in collaboration with the regional AIDS centre, are delivering antiretroviral medicines to people living with HIV who are not able to collect their medicine from the AIDS centre.

Even some HIV testing services are moving online. Owing to quarantine restrictions, mobile laboratories cannot travel, so the Humanitarian Project organized remote testing for key populations in Siberia. “We are working with representatives of key populations and the regional Ministry of Health,” said Denis Kamaldinov, the head the Humanitarian Project. The initiative is providing online support and counselling for people who are at risk of HIV. Since March 2020, online and telephone-based counselling related to HIV and the health of people who use drugs and other key populations has intensified. “Our counsellors are communicating with clients by phone, social media and instant messaging,” he added. In order to receive an HIV self-test kit, a client only needs to complete an online application on the organization’s website.

The Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Tatiana Golikova, has called for nongovernmental organizations working with key populations and people living with HIV to be supported during the COVID-19 pandemic. The regions that have introduced COVID-19 lockdowns have been advised to allow nongovernmental organizations working on social services, including the AIDS response, to continue their work, with their employees having freedom of movement and being supplied with personal protective equipment.

"The unique value of the AIDS centres is demonstrated by their quick and professional response to COVID-19. We are seeing this leadership coming from AIDS centres across the region. With the strategic involvement of AIDS centres and their partners, the COVID-19 response in our region will be more effective and the risk of progress in the AIDS response being rolled back will be mitigated,” said Alexander Goliusov, Director, a.i., of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.