Greek drug treatment officials are trying to win the battle against a dramatic rise in HIV infections under health spending cuts, fearing that the epidemic will spread.
ATHENS, GREECE (NOVEMBER 29, 2013) (REUTERS) - In a state halfway house for HIV infected adults in central Athens people are sheltered and given counselling and support. They are also provided with food and medical care.
"It has [helped me] very much, I have psychological support, I feel very safe here, there is a doctor here daily in case we get sick. If we have emotional problems there is also a psychologist. They have helped me a great deal," she said.
But there are only two of these houses in the country, and none for HIV infected drug users. The home is something the country needs more of, say experts, after a dramatic outbreak of HIV infections among intravenous drug users since 2011, when Greece's economic crisis brought health spending cuts.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) since 2011 Greecehas been facing a crisis with HIV infections in intravenous drug users. Based on statistics by theGreek Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (KEELPNO), the rate of HIV infections among people who inject drugs rose from 15 people in 2010 to 213 the following year - a rise of 1,300 percent.
Experts say there is a correlation between unemployment, homelessness - symptoms of the economic crisis, which began in 2010 - drug use, and HIV infection, as homeless are vulnerable to narcotics on the street. If syringes are not freely available, unemployment will keep them from paying to buy clean syringes and they will share with others.
The ECDC report states that one of the major reasons for the outbreak among injecting drug users is likely due to low levels of preventive services.
KEELPNO mobile medical units that would conduct free Aids testing and care in neighbourhoods have been cut. European officials said the distribution of needles was at some point briefly stopped. And state drug treatment institutions have suffered and there have been funding cuts.
Health care workers have also been hit with wage cuts, but despite this, they have rushed to scale up efforts this year. And they seem to have had some cautious success, as so far HIV infection in injecting drug users in 2013 is less than 2012, at 230 cases. That number is still alarmingly high however, and they say more is needed - more housing projects, more needle distribution, and more patients in substitution treatment programs.
"Certainly we did something good despite the limited resources. My basic fear is now what is going to happen if we don't keep on doing some essential projects for preventing HIV, and especially I mean if we don't spend more on public health," said KEELPNO HIV Epidemiologist George Nikolopoulos.
Despite tight resources the state drug substitution clinics are increasing patient intake, local NGOs are helping in Aids testing, and a drug consumption room has been opened. The fear is that the epidemic could spread to the wider population.
"They must pay attention to the dangers, to the risks, we may encounter in the future. If they don't spend more on health, yes, there will be a serious problem in the future," epidemiologist Nikolopoulos said of the government.
These workers from KEELPNO have hit the streets at night to hand out condoms to the public and syringes to drug users as part of an AIDS awareness campaign. Such actions have increased this year.
Thomas Kattau is Deputy Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe's Pompidou Group, which combats drug abuse. He was on a mission to Greece to raise the alarm over the situation and said there is a risk of a public health epidemic.
"You will run the risk of an increased HIV Aids rate throughout the population and this is demonstrated by the figures we have since 2012. It is the risk of a public health epidemic, it is the risk of the overall health and safety of society," he said.
Statistics in a 2013 health report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), showed Greece's per capita health spending dropped by 11% in 2010 and 2011 after a yearly growth rate of more than 5% between 2000 and 2009.