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Number of HIV/AIDS Cases Continues to Rise in Europe Despite Prevention Campaigns

Lisa Bryant

The number of HIV/AIDS cases in Europe pales in comparison to Africa, but the problem remains serious and the number of cases continues to rise despite prevention campaigns. As Lisa Bryant reports from Paris, Eastern Europe continues to suffer a much higher toll than the rest of the region.

The latest report by UN/AIDS estimates that about 740,000 people live with HIV/AIDS in western and central Europe. About 1.5 million in eastern Europe and central Asia are infected. Those numbers concern AIDS workers.

One reason is because the number of HIV/AIDS cases has been rising, despite years of prevention campaigns. Eastern Europe is a case in point. The number of known HIV cases has increased 150 percent since 2001.

In countries like Serbia, it is not clear how many people have contracted the virus. Dragana Stojanovic, spokeswoman for a Serb youth AIDS organization Jazas, says official estimates count only about 1,500 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. But the World Health Organizations estimates that up to 25,000 are HIV positive.

"At the present - and I'm not saying the estimation is going to remain this way in the coming years - but at the present, we have the largest amount of HIV-positive people in the population of intravenous drug users and men having sex with men," said Stojanovic.

Serbia's low estimates are partly because so few Serbs have tested themselves for the virus. Until recently, testing was not free or confidential.

Stojanovic says those living with the virus are also stigmatized - and they often have difficulty getting treatment.

"The possibilities of treatment are not high yet," said Stojanovic. "The government is covering the costs of treatment, but this is a slow procedure and it takes a lot of time. And not all the drugs that are available are on the white list."

If the drugs are not on the white list, that means patients cannot get their drug purchases reimbursed.

Serbia is not the only country with low testing. Recent surveys suggest more than half of Europe's HIV-positive population does not know they have the virus. At a Brussels conference on HIV/AIDS in Europe earlier this week, experts called for earlier HIV testing to fight rising infection rates. The WHO reported nearly 87,000 new infections in the European region in 2006.

After years of HIV/AIDs awareness and prevention campaigns, it seems surprising that infection is growing in Europe. So what when wrong? That's a question European Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou would like answered.

"I think the main problem with HIV/AIDS is mostly our naiveté. We're naive about it," said Kyprianou. "We thought we managed to control... and we allowed it to become the forgotten disease. And that's why for the European Commission the basic motto, the basic phrase for this disease, is remember me. Because we know many technical and scientific aspects of this problem, but we have to remind people that it still exists."

Experts say that, today, there is a certain complacency toward HIV/AIDS in Europe, because people are aware they will not die if they acquire the virus, thanks to new anti-retroviral drugs. And a new generation of Europeans is growing up without the messages delivered by the biggest AIDS-prevention campaigns, which took place in the 1980s and '90s.

Miriam Hagebolling says this is true for Germany - even though the country only has 59 thousand people living with the virus, one of the lowest numbers in eastern Europe. Hagebolling is political coordinator for Action Against AIDS Germany, an umbrella group of NGOs.

"Especially in the young population - if I look at my own peer group - there's a tiredness about AIDS," said Hagebolling. "People are saying yes, it's affecting homosexuals and drug users but it's not affecting me."

France, with one of Europe's highest infection rates, is facing the same phenomenon, says Emmanuel Chateau, co-president of the French advocacy group Act Up-Paris.

"It was a mistake to think that the epidemic was [just] striking the high-risk groups," said Chateau. "There are heterosexuals that have sex [with their own gender] and drug users that have sex. So it was a mistake to think it only concerned one part of the population."

Chateau also criticizes new legislation taxing anti-retroviral drugs, which are available to AIDS patients free of charge - apart from the tariff.

Still the picture is not uniformly bleak. Bertil Lindblad, UN/AIDS regional director for Europe, says he has seen remarkable progress in fighting the virus in parts of eastern Europe. Lindblad, who is based in Moscow, says Russia is a case in point.

"For example, in Russia there's been a massive increase in the funding from the national budget for treatment and HIV and AIDS work, and last year there was a government commission on HIV established under the auspices of President Putin," said Lindblad.

Overall, Lindblad says, the report card is mixed. Globally, the prevalence of HIV has leveled off - reflecting better efforts to prevent, monitor and fight the epidemic. But in Europe as elsewhere, HIV/AIDS remains a major challenge.

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