Russia’s “repressive drug and homosexuality laws” hamper its fight against HIV, the World Health Organisation has warned.

The country is home to one of the fastest-growing HIV epidemics in the world.

Ten years ago, 170,000 people in the Russian Federation were living with HIV.

The estimated number now is 1.2 million and Russia accounts for over 55% of all new HIV infections reported in the European region.

Martin Donoghue, the programme manager for HIV and AIDS at the World Health Organisation, told IBTimes that removing barriers to HIV services was essential to bringing the epidemic under control.

“It is complex and, without implying direct causality, countries with repressive drug and homosexuality laws will likely also have high HIV rates,” he said.

“Russia has restrictive drug laws. It is the one of a few countries in Europe that prohibits the use of methadone and has been criticised for laws, policies and practices relating to sex between men.

“Russia also has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Europe and certainly reports the most cases in Europe.

“Laws, policies and practices should be reviewed and revised where necessary, and countries should work towards decriminalisation of behaviours such as drug use and injected, sex work, same-sex activity and non-conforming gender activity.”

In 2013, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin passed a federal law banning gay “propaganda”.

Human rights campaigners said the law had resulted in an increase in homophobic and transphobic violence, along with the suppression of information on sexual health and HIV for the LGBT community.

Caitlin Mahon, campaigns officer for HIV charity Avert, said that although the HIV epidemic among gay and bisexual men in Russia appears small – with just 1,718 cases of infections for the whole of Russia – stigma and discrimination has likely led to significant under-reporting.

“This could be a hidden epidemic,” Ms Mahon said. “It is highly likely that the reported numbers do not reflect the reality of the situation, meaning that the burden of HIV among Russian homosexual communities is largely unknown.

“At the societal level, LGBTQ communities in Russia often experience hostility and discrimination, with instances of violence and public humiliation reported.

“All of these factors will propagate increased HIV risk taking behaviour, and hinder the availability, access and uptake of HIV services.”