Financially strapped Greece is seeing a rapid increase in new HIV infections, driven by skyrocketing infection numbers among people who inject drugs, health officials said Friday.
More than 300 people who inject drugs were found to be newly infected between January and August of this year, a more than twentyfold jump over two to five years ago, when 10 to 15 such cases were reported annually, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Health officials said by October, HIV infection numbers had ticked even higher, totaling 1,049 new cases, including 487 among intravenous drug users, the Associated Press reported.
Overall infection rates in Greece remained lower than the European average last year, but the dramatic upswing amid the country's severe financial crunch has raised fears the epidemic could get much worse. The country is expected to face years more of financial pain, despite an agreement inked in Brussels and backed Friday in Berlin that will send $57 billion in rescue loans to Greece.
Those financial woes could limit Greece's attempts to fund drug treatment programs and other health programs. Greece has already lagged in providing clean syringes to drug users, with low numbers of clean syringes per user compared with other European countries.
The country has ramped up some programs, providing more syringes than ever before, but it still gave out only 15 syringes per drug user last year – a tenth of what some other European countries are known to provide.
Greece also scaled up methadone and other treatments to replace drugs, but waiting times for the treatment remain lengthy in Athens, leaving intravenous drug users waiting an average of 44 months, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in its report.
Public spending on medicine has also taken a hit during the crisis. Doctors at the Tzaneio Hospital in Piraeus said they had run out of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV patients, the Kathimerini newspaper reported last week. The hospital did not have any more money to place new orders, doctors said. Scores of other medicines are reportedly in short supply.
Greece has run short of workers who can provide HIV treatment services, the European center said. On top of that, it warned that one of the reforms spurred by the Greek financial crisis -- introducing co-payments at public hospitals -- could reduce access to HIV testing because of the cost.
Greece has taken some good initial steps to address the issue of HIV infections, but more must be done, said Marc Sprenger, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
If not, Sprenger warned, "it is likely that HIV transmission among people who inject drugs in Athens will continue and even accelerate – resulting in a long-term high prevalence of HIV."
While the Greek government has targeted immigrants as a health threat, the European study found that the outbreak was not the result of an influx of foreigners. Most of the newly infected are Greek nationals, the same percentage as before the numbers surged.
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