LONDON – Despite major advances in treating and preventing HIV, Europe and Central Asia have failed to tackle the epidemic, with some 136,000 people becoming newly infected with the incurable AIDS virus last year, health officials said on Thursday.
Figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) showed 80 percent more new HIV cases in 2013 compared to 2004, meaning a crucial target to reverse the tide of AIDS in the region will be missed.
"Europe has not managed to reach the 2015 Millennium Development Goal target ... and time is running out," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's regional director. "We cannot afford dropping our guard on HIV/AIDS."
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the immune system and causes a lifelong illness. The end-stage of the infection, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), is a result of the immune system being destroyed.
HIV is spread via blood, semen and breast milk. There is no cure, but AIDS can be kept at bay for years in people with HIV who take cocktails of antiretroviral drugs. The drugs also help prevent infected people from passing HIV to others.
Of the new HIV infections in 2013 in the 53 countries of the WHO's European region, more than 105,000 were reported in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Compared to 2004, Eastern Europe and Central Asian countries have seen a two-fold surge in new HIV cases -- largely driven by an HIV epidemic among drug users -- and European Union and European Economic Area (EU/EEA) countries have seen no decline.
In Eastern Europe, where 77 percent of all new infections were reported in 2013, two thirds of cases among injecting drug users were detected late, Jakab said.
"This means they are more likely to transmit HIV, their treatment is more expensive, and they are more likely to die."
Marc Sprenger, the ECDC's director, said that in western Europe, groups at highest HIV risk are not reached effectively by prevention services -- particularly gay and bisexual men.
In the EU/EEA, sex between men is still the main mode of HIV transmission, accounting for 42 percent of new cases in 2013.
"The number of HIV diagnoses among this group ... has been going up in all but four EU/EEA countries," Sprenger said. "Prevention and control of HIV among men who have sex with men has to be a cornerstone of national HIV programs."