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Estonia struggles to halt rising HIV infection rate - the highest in the EU

posted 12 May 2011, 10:47 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 12 May 2011, 10:49 ]

Estonia is still struggling to stop the spread of HIV and remains the country with the highest rate of infection in the European Union. The infection has mainly struck people from the country's large Russian-speaking population.

TALLINN, ESTONIA (RECENT) REUTERS - n a tree-lined street in a Tallinn suburb, a group of drug addicts stands waiting, hands in pockets, for a clean batch of syringes. Street workers know the local hangouts in the Estonian capital and meet the predominantly Russian-speaking users to swap their used needles for new ones.

The needle exchange programme is run by a local NGO - Convictus - and with only four active employees is attempting to make a dent in Estonia's alarming statistics that, as of the last count in 2009, puts the rate of HIV infections in the Baltic country at 6 times higher than the European average.

The HIV epidemic has been on the rise since 1990s, both a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and worsening social conditions for Estonia's underprivileged youth. According to Kristi Rüütel, an expert with Estonia's Institute for Health and Development the country was taken by surprise by the epidemic, that in 2009 had 30.7 HIV cases per 100,000 compared to a European average of 5.7 cases.

"In late 1990s nobody had actually seen such a massive epidemic in a western country. So, nobody was really thinking that something like this could happen," Rüütel said.

Figures show that there is one HIV infected person registered in Estonia on a daily basis. Currently, there are 10 thousand people infected with HIV registered, which in a country of only 1,3 million is significant.

The rapid spread of HIV has come hand in hand with increased drug use where the disease is passed on via dirty needles and Igor Sobolev, chairman of the board of the Estonian network of people living with HIV/AIDS says more needs to be done by the government to arrest the epidemic.

"Firstly, there are drug users and their partners. However, if serious preventative measures are not taken for limiting the infection soon, the situation could get out of control," Sobolev said.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia suffered a sharp economic decline, many industrial sectors disappeared completely and factories and military bases were closed. The closures led to massive unemployment in the Russian speaking community and a decline in their social conditions.

In addition many of the Russian workers do not speak Estonian well enough to step into the new labour market.

"About 80 percent of drug users and about 60 to 70 percent of HIV positive people are Russian-speakers," says Igor Sobolev about the epidemic that is mostly concentrated in Tallinn and Estonia's northeast city, Narva.

The government is taking small measures in the form of the syringe programme and education programmes on using protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

But says HIV consultant, Deniss Naumov, there is not enough being done to tackle the residing social problems that lead to drug abuse.

"They have nowhere to go, that's why it's happening like this. Previously, you could take sports classes for free, but nowadays you have to pay for everything. Most people just lack opportunities," Naumov said.

While the spread of the disease has been limited to drug users the next vital step is to prevent HIV spreading from this section of the population to others via sexual contact.

"There is reason to be optimistic that if we can control the epidemic among injecting drug users and if the sexual risk behavior trends of the general population also further improve, then we may able to prevent this type of generalisation. Where HIV spreads among heterosexual people without any further input from this concentrated epidemic group," says Kristi Rüütel.

In the meanwhile it falls to the government to up the ante in tackling the problem that this year did not even appear on the election programme.