Huge gulf in HIV services between Western and Eastern Europe – UN health agency

21 July 2010 – Spotlighting the gap in access to treatment and prevention services between Western and Eastern Europe, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today called for concerted action to address the situation in Europe, home to the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world.

There were more than 1.2 million reported HIV cases in the region by the end of 2008, with over 100,000 new infections occurring during that year. The number of reported cases ever year is now relatively constant in Western Europe, at roughly 20,000 per year, but increasing in the East at some 80,000 annually.

“While HIV epidemics in Western Europe are, with some exceptions, generally stabilizing, in many countries in Eastern Europe, they rage out of control,” said Andrew Ball, Senior Strategy and Operations Adviser of WHO’s HIV/AIDS Department.

Injecting drug use is largely fueling the epidemic in Europe, the agency said in a press release.

It noted that more than half of the people living in HIV in some countries are injecting drug users, and that a large proportion of these people also have tuberculosis and hepatitis C.

In many European countries, WHO said that drug users are often stigmatized and are excluded from receiving HIV treatment and other services.

Ukraine is one of the nations most severely affected by the epidemic in the region, with more than 15,000 new infections in 2008.

In response to that surge, the country has distributed clean needles and syringes and set up programmes such as opioid substitution therapy to treat drug dependency, which WHO said is proven to improve the health of injecting drug users.

In Western Europe, Portugal, a country which once had a growing HIV problem, has seen its rate of new infections stabilize thanks to its moves to reduce the number of drug users and to deliver prevention and treatment services to them.

Governments and their partners, WHO said, must step up action to rein in the spread of the epidemic and ensure that HIV services can be accessed in Eastern Europe.

The recommendation comes as UN agencies, government officials and health experts meet in Vienna for the global XVIII International AIDS Conference.

Earlier this week, WHO issued a new report which found that the number of people receiving life-saving HIV treatment has soared by more than 1 million to 5.2 million, marking the largest jump ever.

The agency also appealed for earlier treatment for people living with HIV before they become ill due to their weakened immune systems.

HIV-related deaths can be reduced by 20 per cent between 2010 and 2015 if guidelines for treatment are broadly implemented, helping to prevent infections such as tuberculosis, the number one cause of death for people with HIV. WHO noted that deaths from TB can be curbed by up to 90 per cent if people living with both HIV and TB begin treatment earlier.

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