Insight: In Greek crisis, HIV gains ground

‘Contagion’ is the label financial markets use for the economic spread of the Greek crisis. For hundreds of people in an increasingly chaotic society, the word has a deadlier meaning.

Take the mother of four introduced to Reuters by her social worker at the bright offices of an Athens non-governmental organization called Kentro Zois, or The Center for Life. A Ukrainian, she said she immigrated to Greece 12 years ago and married a Greek man.

Bleached blonde hair tightly pulled back in a bun, the 34-year old spoke on condition of anonymity. When her two-year-old daughter was wheezy last October, she brought the child to a state-run hospital. The doctors could not explain the baby’s persistent fever. One suggested an HIV test. The diagnosis for both mother and child was positive. “I was devastated,” she said.

She isn’t the only one to be shocked. In 2009, the year the baby was born, Greece had detected not a single case of a mother transmitting the AIDS virus to her child, according to the Hellenic Center for Diseases Control and Prevention, a public health agency funded by the Health Ministry. The mother’s infection was apparently missed by a nationwide screening program for pregnant women.

“How was it possible for an HIV-positive child to be born in Greece? That is my question,” asked the woman’s social worker, Anna Kavouri, head of social services at The Center for Life, which helps people living with HIV/AIDS. Kavouri is working with the woman to try to find out what happened and what options she may have for legal redress.

The health ministry did not respond to phone calls seeking comment, and Reuters was unable to verify all the elements of the woman’s story. But others in the Greek capital say the country’s social safety net is fraying, nowhere more so than in the health system. Spending by Greeks on health is falling 36 percent this year, according to the National School of Public Health. Including both the government and private individuals, the country spent around 25 billion euros, or roughly 10 percent of GDP, on both public and private health in 2010; in 2011 that will be 16 billion. Just 10 billion or so is government spending on the public health sector.

The effect of that is most visible on the edges of society. Heroin use and prostitution are up. Drug addicts and illegal immigrants with HIV say clean needles, heroin substitutes and antiretroviral treatments are harder to come by. The pace of HIV infection is surging.

The latest available United Nations figures, from 2009, show that 11,000 people, or 0.1 percent of the Greek population, had HIV/AIDS, a third the rate in the United States. But that may be changing. In the first five months of 2010, Greece had 255 new HIV cases. Over the same period this year, there were 384 new cases - an increase of more than 50 percent. The Hellenic Center predicts the rate of increase will rise to 60 percent by the end of 2011. By comparison in the United States, cases are increasing by around 7 percent annually.

The problem in Greece has been aggravated by increased drug use. Historically, only about a quarter of people newly infected with HIV in Greece were injecting drug users. But 174 drug users have tested positive to mid October this year. The Hellenic Center says that will be around 200 by the end of the year. Nikos Dedes, an adviser to the HIV Committee at the World Health Organization (WHO), says that while most HIV in Greece is still transmitted through unprotected homosexual sex, the risks through heterosexual sex are rising.

“The HIV situation in Greece is like a dry forest in summer which has just been hit with a gust of wind,” says Dedes, who is also head of Positive Voice, a Greek NGO set up to combat the spread of HIV. “It could go up in flames any minute.” Europe crisis spells more pain for drugmakers.


The Ukrainian mother said she is not an injecting drug user and believes she got HIV through an operation several years ago, though this was impossible to verify.

People in any society can have HIV and not know it - the United Nations believes around 250,000 in the United States do. That’s why many countries, including Greece, routinely screen pregnant women. But the mother said she was not offered an HIV test when she was pregnant with her youngest.

“It didn’t even occur to me that I would need one,” said the mother, dressed in black sweatpants and a camel-colored leather jacket. When and how she became infected is not clear, but doctors say she probably passed the virus to her daughter through breastfeeding. Women with HIV are told not to breastfeed as it significantly increases the chance of passing on the virus.

The baby has a twin, a boy, who along with the rest of the family has tested negative for HIV. Unlike his sister, he did not take to breastfeeding.

The mother has separated from her Greek husband in the last year, and now lives with her children in a government-run shelter.

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