WASHINGTON January 9, 1998 (Reuters) -- At a lecture here, journalist Laurie Garrett painted a dark picture of the former Soviet Union, stating that rampant alcoholism, poverty, pollution, and injection drug use are creating an epidemic of infectious disease. Adding fuel to the fire, healthcare workers are not using simple infection control methods, such as masks and gloves, she said.
Garrett, a Newsday reporter and author of the book, The Coming Plague, spent the last 18 months traveling in the nations that made up the Eastern Bloc and the USSR. "The situation in this part of the world is grim indeed, and getting grimmer," Garrett told an audience at the National Academy of Sciences. According to Garrett, the death rate in the region is 1.7 times the birth rate. Since the demise of Communism in 1991, life expectancy has fallen to an average 58 years, from about 65 years.
Garrett was drawn to the area to investigate what happened to the huge centralized public health infrastructure in the wake of Communism's collapse. What she found amazed her. Healthcare workers in the Eastern Bloc countries did not use gloves, goggles, or masks when drawing blood, handling used needles, or closely treating tuberculosis (TB) patients.
This recklessness could not always be blamed on shortages, Garrett said. "The concept of infection control is a little bit behind the times," she stated with some sarcasm. The health establishment appears to subscribe to some strange theories about transmission of pathogens, she commented. The lack of infection control will have devastating consequences. The prevalence of tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis are growing exponentially, she said.
"We are witnessing an absolutely phenomenal explosion of AIDS in the region," Garrett said, noting that many epidemiologists now think the former Soviet Union has the fastest growing case rate in the world. In Ukraine alone, there are likely to be 250,000 cases by the year 2002. Garrett said that in one town in Belarus, 1 of every 9 residents has tested HIV positive, and that, alarmingly, 8 of the 10 known HIV subtypes are circulating in the former USSR.
HIV infections are being driven by injection drug use and prostitution, both of which were almost unknown under Communism, said Garrett. Standing outside a park in Odessa, Garrett witnessed 500 teenagers shoot up in one hour. Tuberculosis is also a growing scourge, thanks to illicit drug use and improper administration of antibiotics. Garrett said that there were 145,000 cases in Russia last year, and that in some areas of Mongolia, the TB infection rate is the highest in the world.