A 24-year-old Russian woman on Thursday was crowned as Miss Positive, winning Russia's first beauty pageant for HIV-infected women in a step that organizers hope will help combat the stigma of the disease in Europe's most afflicted country.
Svetlana Izambayeva, a hairdresser, won a contest timed to coincide with World AIDS Day organized by a magazine called Shagi, or Steps, which is published for HIV-positive Russians.
Russia has the largest number of AIDS and HIV cases in Europe. Official statistics show that 330,000 Russians have the HIV virus, but U.N. experts say the true number tops 1 million in one of the world's fastest spreading epidemics. The disease in Russia particularly affects youths, with unprotected sex largely to blame.
The stigma remains very high for HIV-infected people. NTV cited a recent survey that showed that two-thirds of Russians would not buy food products from an infected salesperson. Izambeyava, from the Chuvash region some 600 kilometers (370 miles) from Moscow, said some of her customers had stopped getting their hair cut with her.
The contest was conducted over the Internet. Three winners were chosen, but only Izambayeva agreed to attend Thursday's awards ceremony in Moscow. Russia's chief medical officer Gennady Onishchenko praised the initiative, the AP reports.