At a regional AIDS conference on November 18, international AIDS experts called on Russian health officials to cast aside their abstinence-based HIV prevention strategy in favor of comprehensive sex education along with needle exchange programs and replacement therapy for intravenous drug users, The Associated Press reports.

The number of Russians living with HIV has doubled in the past eight years, and evidence shows that the virus is increasingly transmitted through heterosexual sex. In contrast, HIV prevalence rates fell during the same period in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.

Russia's chief public health officer, Gennadi G. Onishchenko, told officials at the conference that the country was “emphatically against” using drug replacement therapy and that needle exchange programs promote HIV transmission and illicit drug sales.

However, critics are calling that approach shortsighted.

“International studies show that an abstinence-based message on drug use or sex simply doesn't work,” said Robin Gorna, executive director of the International AIDS Society. “Ideology is getting in the way of public health care policy.”

Russia's existing needle exchange and condom distribution programs are supported by grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but that funding will be terminated based on the organization's new guidelines for grant eligibility.