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1 man is source of 260 cases of AIDS

Forty percent of all AIDS cases reported in Russia have been traced to one man, a radio engineer from the city of Elista.

But the epidemic wasn't his fault. Blame hospitals for using the same syringe on several patients. Most of them were babies.

The disaster began in 1980, when the engineer, who has not been named, left his city in the steppes between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea for a year's work in the Congo.

He returned to Elista in 1981 carrying the AIDS virus. It is not clear how he got it.

He married. The virus spread to his wife. She had a child. The child was infected, became sick and in 1988 was sent to the hospital. Doctors did not know the child carried the virus.

The child received various drug injections. And here is where the epidemic began.

If the same drug was to be given to several children, doctors and nurses "would use the same syringe, because they would think children are sterile," said Marina Savelyeva, a molecular biologist with the AESOP Resource Center in Moscow, an AIDS education and training center. Needles were discarded, but not syringes.

The virus spread to other hospitalized children. Some got sick and were transferred to larger regional hospitals.

At each of those hospitals, the pattern was repeated. New cases appeared 300 miles away in hospitals in Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don and Stavropol.

It was some time before Russian medical authorities realized what was happening. There had not been a single case of AIDS infection in the area before. As soon as authorities recognized the disease, they began exhaustive medical detective work to track the epidemic to its source.

In 1989, more than 140,000 people were tested for evidence of infection. The investigation turned up many infected children, some infected mothers and one infected man: the Russian engineer.

"Now there are about 260 infected children of various ages," said Dr. Alexandre Gromyko of the World Health Organization's AIDS program.

The engineer's child died without ever leaving the hospital. Many others died later.

The cases represent 40 percent of the 637 cases reported in Russia, said Dr. Johannes Hallauer, European coordinator of the World Health Organization's AIDS program.

The numbers pale in comparison to the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta had recorded 289,320 cases of AIDS in the nation, with 182,275 deaths as of March.

The existence of the Russian epidemic became public shortly after it began, but new details were disclosed this week during the Ninth International Conference on AIDS.

Disposable needles and syringes are now widely available, and no new AIDS cases have been reported in the region for 1 1/2 years.