WHO calls for united action against HIV in Europe

Vienna, Austria, 21 July 2010

Speaking at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, WHO experts today drew attention to the glaring disparities between countries in western and eastern Europe in providing access to HIV services for people living with HIV.

“While HIV epidemics in western Europe are, with some exceptions, generally stabilizing, in many countries in eastern Europe, they rage out of control,” said Dr Andrew Ball, Senior Strategy and Operations Adviser in the HIV/AIDS Department at WHO headquarters.

By the end of 2008, over 1.2 million HIV cases had been reported in the WHO European Region, with over 100 000 new infections during that year. The annual number of reported new cases is relatively stable in the west (at about 20 000), but volatile and increasing in the east (at about 80 000). Overall, the European Region now has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the world.

In Europe, HIV is largely fuelled by injecting drug use; injecting drug users (IDU) comprise over 50% of people living with HIV in some countries. Moreover, large proportions of these people are co-infected with tuberculosis and hepatitis C. In many countries, IDU are often stigmatized and excluded from health and social services, including HIV treatment.

One of the most severely affected countries in the Region, Ukraine reported the largest annual number of new infections to date: over 15 000 in 2008. Ukraine has responded by distributing clean needles and syringes among IDU and establishing programmes for them, includingopioid substitution therapy (OST). Evidence shows that OST improves the health of IDU by reducing their drug-injecting behaviour, which fuels the epidemic. Dr Olena Eschenko and Dr Natalia Nizova, of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine, said that treatment and prevention for drug users were proving to work in their country.

In western Europe, HIV has become relatively stable, for example, in Portugal, where it had once been a grave problem. “Brave moves to reduce the harm of drug use and deliver prevention and treatment to people who inject drugs has turned the epidemic around,” said Dr Henrique Barros, National AIDS Coordinator, Portugal.

“Glaring disparities in HIV/AIDS response between western and eastern Europe are unacceptable,” said Mr Nikos Dedes of Greece, Chairperson of the European AIDS Treatment Group. “More united action is required to limit the rapid spread of the disease and to improve treatment and care in eastern Europe.”

“HIV in Europe depends on the access to services in the east,” said Mr Martin Donoghoe, programme manager for HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and viral hepatitis at the WHO Regional Office for Europe. “We also need to prevent the re-emergence of HIV epidemics in the west.” Limiting the fast growth of HIV in Europe requires much more concerted action by all governments and their partner organizations across the WHO European Region. 

For more information, please contact:

Dr Zsofia Szilagyi
Communications Adviser
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Scherfigsvej 8, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
Tel.: +45 3917 1627, Fax: +45 39 17 18 80
E-mail: SZZ@euro.who.int