2 min

Can they stop epidemic in its infancy?

Local activists reach out to Russian PWAs

The AIDS epidemic in Russia is in its early stages, and Toronto’s Bill Flanagan wants to keep it that way.

“We have a real opportunity to divert what could become a very serious epidemic,” says Flanagan, a project director of the Canada AIDS Russia Project (CARP).

Flanagan says most of those with HIV contracted the virus in the last five years. “The opportunity to participate in a way that might be helpful was very interesting to me,” he says of his involvement – and his many trips overseas.

Three times a year, a group of Canadian doctors, nurses, and community workers fly out to work with Russian doctors and AIDS activists, sharing knowledge they’ve gained fighting HIV over here.

Flanagan has a long history working with AIDS organizations, starting with ACT UP in the US in the late 1980s, and two years as chair of the AIDS Committee Of Toronto.

He was approached by CARP founder Vinay Saldanha about three years ago, when Saldanha was looking to get money from CIDA – the federal agency for international development.

Flanagan’s personal pet project is community development, educating activists about organizing. He’s working on the Russian AIDS Training And Development Project, which began on World AIDS Day 1998 and is set to run until World AIDS Day 2000 (on Dec 1).

“That is maybe the hardest part,” says Carol Yaworski, CARP’s executive director. “Community development is an idea that is fundamentally foreign to Russians.”

CARP is helping to set up seven non-governmental groups, one in each of Russia’s six regions, with two in St Petersburg. One of the St Petersburg groups deals primarily with women and children with HIV. This group is one of CARP’s success stories, and last fall it lobbied medical officials to stop separating newborn infants from their HIV-positive mothers.

On their February trip, CARP members will teach activists, including a number of people with AIDS, how to apply for grants to help fund community organizations. (CIDA’s Eastern Europe branch gave CARP $850,000, with $57,000 set aside to provide grants to the developing NGOs).

Flanagan says there is quite a lot of foreign grant money available to community AIDS groups. “Hopefully they’ll learn the skills and develop a track record that allows them to seek other sources of funds in the future,” he says.

Shocked at what he saw on a 1995 trip, Canadian Vinay Saldanha started one of Russia’s first HIV groups, the International AIDS Project. Shortly after, he returned to Canada looking for money. Today, Saldanha works out of Russia as CARP’s Canadian project coordinator.

Toronto hospice Casey House joined the CARP team as a co-signer for the CIDA money, since the agency was reluctant to give such a large sum to a team with no track record.

Flanagan says Casey House is filled with “experts in palliative care, and home care,” and some of its staff will likely join the trip in June when CARP hopes to deal with palliative care issues.