MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's AIDS epidemic is at a dangerous tipping point after the number of people registered HIV-positive passed the 1 million mark, the country's top AIDS specialist said on Thursday, warning the rate of infection had reached record levels.
Russia registered its millionth HIV-positive patient -- a 26-year-old woman in the south of the country -- on Wednesday, Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the federal AIDS centre, told Reuters in a phone interview.
But he said the real number of HIV-positive Russians could be as high as 1.5 million, or 1 percent of the population, based on his and other expert estimates.
"The epidemic is gathering strength. Unfortunately the measures that have been taken have clearly not been enough," Pokrovsky said.
He warned that Russia was "on the threshold" of moving from a concentrated epidemic, where HIV is highly prevalent in one subset of the population, to a generalised epidemic, where HIV rates among the general population are sufficient for sexual networking to drive new infections.
"We're in a transitional phase," he said.
AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Pokrovsky said 204,000 people had died of HIV in Russia since the first case was recorded in 1987. He expected the number of new cases in 2015 to be at least 93,000, up from just under 90,000 in 2014.
That, he said, would be the largest number of new cases since Russia began keeping data almost 30 years ago.
The escalation comes as Russia struggles financially, beset by low oil prices, Western sanctions and a falling rouble.
It plans to spend 40 billion roubles ($475.20 million) on fighting HIV/AIDs in 2016. Pokrovsky said 100 billion roubles was needed.
Almost 20 percent of the country's drug users and nearly 10 percent of the country's gay people were HIV-positive, he said. More than 1 percent of the population in at least 10 regions had been recorded as having the virus for over a year.
"In separate regions we can say there is already a generalised HIV epidemic," he noted, saying 55-60 percent of cases were linked to drug use and around 40 percent to heterosexual sex. Gay sex accounted for only about 1.5 percent.
Government data shows 24,000 HIV-positive people died in 2014, the last full year for which data is available. Of those, around 12,000 died as a direct result of AIDS. Pokrovsky said the real number who died from AIDS was likely to be higher.
He said he expected data for 2015 to show a 5-10 percent increase in the number of deaths.
Editing by Katharine Houreld