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War-Torn Ukraine Facing AIDS Care 'Disaster'

Hundreds of children were born with HIV unnecessarily in Ukraine last year because of a shortage of vital drugs, a Sky News investigation has discovered.

A year of conflict has led to claims the country's AIDS programme is "breaking down" and not enough is being done to fight the epidemic, which has plagued the former Soviet state for more than 25 years.

War in the east of the country and political turmoil in Kiev has choked off the supply of antiretroviral drugs used to prevent the spread of the virus.

International organisations like Unicef are worried that one of the key indicators - the transferral of the virus from pregnant women to unborn children - is beginning to rise for the first time since 2002.

"There is potential for a real disaster," said Giovanna Barberis, Unicef's representative in Ukraine.

"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."

Many pregnant women who should have received antiretroviral therapy did not get access to the drug and have gone on to give birth to HIV-positive babies, Ms Barberis said.

Months of turmoil have left Ukraine's finances shattered and the government forced to sign a $17bn (£11bn) bailout with the International Monetary Fund.

Despite the warnings, Ukraine's new health minister Alexander Kvitashvili told Sky News 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," he said.

"Given the situation in the country, given the full-blown Russian aggression that we're facing, given the financial crisis, I think we have a grip on the situation."

But doctors on the frontline of the fight against HIV do not agree.

The National Treatment Centre in Kiev is home to 20 children, all of whom have HIV.

Many of them have been abandoned by their mothers and left to live in state-run orphanages.

Dr Vera Checheneva, an HIV specialist and paediatrician, is one of the few doctors who agrees to treat children with HIV - such is the level of fear among the medical profession.

"At the moment I feel I am not in Ukraine, that I am in Africa or somewhere," she said.

"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."

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