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AIDS Epidemic in Europe Mostly Spread by IV Drug Users - 2002-11-27

The AIDS epidemic is racing across Eastern Europe, spread primarily by intravenous drug users sharing syringes.

Health experts say AIDS is spreading faster across the former communist bloc of Eastern Europe and Central Asia than any other region on earth.

According to the United Nations, 1.2 million people in the region now live with HIV and AIDS. A quarter million of them became infected just this year. And the disease will claim 25,000 lives in the region in 2002.

AIDS first spread through Western countries two decades ago, primarily among homosexual men engaging in unprotected sex.

But in Eastern Europe, it is primarily intravenous drug users sharing syringes who are infecting each other and their sex partners.

An AIDS expert at the World Health Organization, Bernhard Schwartzlander, said drug use and AIDS is a byproduct of political and social upheaval. "The situation that we see in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is a situation of a very rapid turnover and change in the societies. What that has brought with it was a very clear shift in risk behavior," he said.

Dr. Schwartzlander said the situation is made worse, because it is difficult for drug addicts to get clean syringes. He urges governments to decriminalize the possession of needles. "It requires quite some change in thinking, for administrations to deal with the problems appropriately. Very often, it is illegal to carry a needle around with you. Carrying a needle around with you is seen as a sign that you inject drugs and engage in illegal behavior, and the police will use that sign to put people in jail," he said.

In Western Europe, the AIDS statistics are better, though authorities warn against complacency.

The United Nations says 8,000 Western Europeans will die of AIDS this year, out of a worldwide total of 3.1 million deaths.

Experts say AIDS is being spread in Western Europe primarily through heterosexual intercourse. They say there is still a high level of ignorance about AIDS and how it is transmitted.

A new survey of young Britons found that one-third of 18-to-24-year-olds believe there is a cure for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Almost 1-in-4 believed kissing transmits HIV, and 10 percent thought dirty toilet seats could infect them.

Scientists say HIV is transmitted by an exchange of blood, semen or mother's milk, and it is not passed on by casual contact with an infected person.

AIDS experts say Western Europe also faces an indirect threat from the epidemic, because it could upset world security. Peter Piot is the chief of the U.N. AIDS agency. "There is a responsibility of governments, and therefore of the public, in countries like Britain or Western Europe, to contribute in the fight against AIDS in the developing countries. Not only a moral responsibility, which should be enough in its own right, but also, this is becoming one of the greatest threats to stability in the world," Mr. Piot said.

The United Nations said the world community needs to triple its financial support for the anti-AIDS campaign. The U.N. has said $10.5 billion annually should be budgeted within the next two years for AIDS prevention programs in developing countries.