The war in Ukraine has severely impacted some of the tiniest victims as hundreds of babies were born with HIV unnecessarily last year due to a shortage of vital drugs, a new report says.
International relief organizations like UNICEF are concerned that too many pregnant women infected with HIV are passing the virus onto their unborn children, a Sky News investigation reveals. The numbers of infants born with HIV contracted in the womb is beginning to rise for the first time in more than a decade.
Months of fighting between Ukrainian government troops and Russian-backed separatists have led to claims the country’s AIDS program is “breaking down” and effective measures are not being taken to fight the epidemic.
Ukraine has had an AIDS problem for more than 25 years but had seen improvement. Bloody battles in the eastern part of the country and political turmoil in the last year have limited the supply of anti-retroviral drugs needed to prevent the spread of HIV.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine has claimed at least 5,300 lives and displaced nearly a million people, according to United Nations figures.
UNICEF workers familiar with the health concerns say the numbers of babies born with HIV are increasing for the first time since 2002.
"There is potential for a real disaster," Giovanna Barberis, UNICEF's representative in Ukraine told Sky.
"Because of the crisis in Ukraine the system is breaking down and there is a shortage of antiretroviral drugs. They cost money, they are expensive and whilst the international community is there to support, it is probably not enough," Barberis said.
Uncertainty in Ukraine has left the country’s finances destroyed and the government was forced to sign a $17 billion bailout with the International Monetary Fund.
But Ukraine's new health minister Alexander Kvitashvili says the country has "a grip" on the epidemic. “We’re very well prepared to face the challenges and we are ready to send that message to our international donors," Kvitashvili said.
Doctors on the frontline of the battle against HIV don’t agree.
HIV specialist and pediatrician Dr. Vera Checheneva is one of the brave medical professionals willing to treat children with HIV. "At the moment I feel I am not in Ukraine, that I am in Africa or somewhere," Checheneva said.
Dr. Checheneva is skeptical about the country’s ability to control the virus.
"This is very expensive treatment and our government prefers to save money by buying cheaper drugs, but they're not very good quality. These new figures we have - they're just the tip of the iceberg. I don't know what more I can do," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.