The what, why and how of health and development

Increasing rates of HIV on World AIDS Day 2014

The battle to curb HIV infections in some regions of Europe is failing after new figures released last week show an 80 percent increase in the rate of infection in 2013 when compared to 2004.

The vast majority of new cases occur in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which has seen a two fold surge of HIV infections in the past decade, thought to be due to insufficient policies in many countries aimed at preventing the spread of infection among drug users and men who have sex with men.

The latest figures released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe show that in 2013 there were 176,000 new HIV diagnosis, a huge increase from the 79,000 new cases that were registered in 2004.

Over 100,000 of the new cases in 2013 were registered in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, one of the few regions around the world were HIV infections continue to rise.

The lack of harm reduction programmes in drug policies, particularly needle exchange programmes, is thought to be partly responsible for the surge in infections in this region. However disease prevention experts point out that some of the main people affected across all of Europe are still men who have sex with men.

“The number of HIV diagnoses among this group has increased by 33% compared to 2004 – and has been going up in all but four EU/EEA countries. This is why prevention and control of HIV among men who have sex with men has to be a cornerstone of national HIV programmes across Europe,” explains ECDC Director Marc Sprenger.

Across much of this region there aren’t many programmes designed to specifically target and support the LGBT communities, which can partly be due to societal attitudes towards homosexuality that can make it difficult for to seek treatment. For example a 2009 European Social Survey found that the level of acceptance of the statement “gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish” was lowest in former Soviet bloc countries.

A 2012 study looking at the experience of gay HIV positive men in Hungary found that many avoided being discriminated against by keeping their HIV status secret. One interviewee said: “If the whole town knows about my HIV status, then the dentist won’t have me and people will avoid me on the street. … So, I never inform anyone about my HIV status and, even if someone would directly ask about it, I wouldn’t say anything because it is none of their business.”

And researchers found that when the men were required to disclose their status to medics and hospital staff it was then they faced the strongest discrimination, with one nurse telling a patient to wash themselves because “she didn’t know how the disease spread” and even doctors encouraging someone to keep their status a secret.

Experts say the increasing rates of HIV infection and the societal problems that often surround the epidemic can be tackled with effective education campaigns backed up by strong policies and funding for testing and treatment programmes. And what better day to think about the road ahead than today – World AIDS Day – which this year is campaigning under the slogan “Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS Free Generation.”

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