Insight: In Greek crisis, HIV gains ground


As the economic crisis worsens, society is becoming gloomier. Greeks are swallowing 35 percent more anti-depressants than they did five years ago, according to the National School of Public Health. The health ministry says suicides are up 40 percent so far this year. And if the lines of people at the Hellenic Center’s mobile HIV testing vans around Athens’ poor quarters are anything to go by, more and more Greeks are also worried about AIDS.

Wearing a stethoscope and long white gown, doctor Evaggelos Liapis conducts tests every night between 6 and 10 pm on the corner of Omonoia Square, which bustles with sesame breadstick vendors, businessmen and drug users hunting for cash. Six months ago, Liapis said, all four vans operating around the city would receive on average two people per night. That’s now gone up to 40 tests a night.

“There are no clean syringes around here and we have an increase in poverty and prostitution, especially amongst the drug users,” Liapis said as a heavily tattooed Greek man in his twenties sat down in the van for a blood test.

The WHO recommends that 200 clean syringes are provided per drug user per year, to limit HIV infection. Greece has been providing three, the Hellenic Center says.

Adding to the risk is the fact that when times are tough, drug users are more likely to inject heroin rather than snorting or smoking it, because they get a bigger hit for their money by using a needle, according to French researchers. “Between 2007 and 2008, whilst gross salary growth rates were falling significantly, the proportion of injecting drug users rose by 1.70 percent,” wrote Christian Ben Lakhdar, of the Catholic University of Lille, and Tanja Bastianic, of the French Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Yannis, a 34-year old Greek addict, is among them. He said he used to inject heroin, then cleaned up at a state-run rehab center just outside of Athens. But earlier this year he says he became HIV-positive from sharing needles.

“Now they want me on a detox program to prove my commitment to giving up drugs. Otherwise it can get difficult to get my (HIV) drugs, even though I am Greek and have social security,” he said by telephone in Athens.

On paper, all Greeks who make social security contributions should be granted HIV treatment, but Yannis says doctors are becoming choosy over who gets them. And the treatment is expensive.


Budget cuts have complicated Athens’ relationship with pharmaceutical companies. Athens has imposed some of the most draconian price cuts for medicines of any European country, and some companies have been forced to accept Greek government bonds instead of cash for outstanding debts.

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