HIV/AIDS in Europe
According to the World Health Organisation Europe is facing an HIV/AIDS epidemic with roughly two million people in the region now infected with the virus or living full blown AIDS. The official European Union figure has shot up recently with the acceptance of ten new member states.
Across the continent the number of cases varies dramatically as does the main cause of the infection. In Western Europe the number of people with AIDS has systematically dropped thanks to very effective antiretroviral drugs.
In some countries, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and the UK, HIV has affected the gay community the most. Thanks to very successful needle exchange programs the number of injecting drug users with the virus is declining.
However, a fact which is now worrying public health campaigners is that across Northern Europe the number of HIV infections through heterosexual contact is rising, particularly among women. This leads many to believe that complacency is going hand in hand with high risk behaviour. The rise in HIV cases could also be down to the fact that the world now has a very migrant population and people from developing countries, where HIV/AIDS is prevalent, are moving into the developed countries and forming part of their statistics.
The UK has seen one of Europe’s biggest rises in HIV cases. In 2003, 6,600 new HIV cases were reported accounting for nearly 40% of all new infections in western Europe. The majority were through homosexual contact but again the number of people infected through heterosexual sex increased sharply – about 80% of them are believed to have been infected abroad (mainly in sub-Saharan Africa).
In Southern Europe, injecting drug use is blamed as the main transmitter of HIV. Portugal, Spain, France and Italy have all seen the number of cases rises – particularly among young people. In Portugal 81 people in every million are infected.
In Eastern Europe injecting drug use (IDU) is also the cause of the majority of HIV infections, accounting for 61% of cases. Around 80% of those infected are people under the age of 24. Infection through gay sex accounts for just 0.3% of cases, though in many of these Eastern European countries there is still a stigma attached to being gay, so there may well be a hidden epidemic of infections caused by homosexual contact.
Due to a lack of government funding and the cost of medication only around 15,000 people receive anti HIV drugs in Eastern Europe out of the 120,000 who desperately need them.
In Europe, as with every other continent in the world, prevention is the key to halting the growing epidemic.
WHO has been very vocal in its belief that many European governments, particularly those in Eastern Europe where the epidemic continues to go unchecked, aren’t doing enough to educate people or provide basics like free access to condoms and needle exchange programs.
Lack of information on how HIV can be prevented or passed on continue to fuel one of the greatest health crises of modern times.