LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – One in seven people with HIV in the Europe Union region is unaware they have the virus, seriously hampering efforts to meet a global 2030 deadline for eradicating the AIDS epidemic, a senior health expert said on Tuesday.
The average estimated time between infection and diagnosis is four years with nearly half of people not being diagnosed until the late stages of the disease, according to a report published ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec 1.
Around 810,000 people are believed to be living with HIV in the EU's 28 member countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, the report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) shows.
But the ECDC estimates 122,000 are unaware they have the virus.
Andrea Ammon, acting director of the ECDC, said it was worrying that the number of new infections every year had remained constant for a decade and called for testing services to be ramped up.
"The findings are definitely of concern. They tell us that we still have a lot to do despite all the HIV prevention efforts," Ammon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Almost 30,000 newly diagnosed HIV infections were reported last year in the region, according to the joint report with World Health Organization (WHO).
Ammon warned of the risks for people with HIV who do not know their status.
"It means for the individual that they can't get the benefit of early treatment which allows you nowadays to have almost a normal life," she said.
"But of course it (also) means for society that they can transmit the infection as long as they are not aware."
Sex between men is the main way HIV is transmitted in the region, accounting for 42 percent of diagnoses, the report said. Sex between women and men accounted for just under a third of transmissions, while injecting drug use accounted for 4 percent.
Ammon called for greater efforts to promote self-testing at home and said health services should offer HIV tests as part of routine health screenings.
Providing finger-prick tests in gay bars was another effective way to reach people who would not otherwise get tested, Ammon said.
World leaders agreed last year to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - an ambitious plan for tackling poverty and inequality.
Ammon said the target was not unrealistic provided early diagnosis was improved - if people are put on drugs soon after infection they are unlikely to develop AIDS.
Trends vary widely between countries with Greece, Lithuania, Romania and Poland seeing big increases in HIV diagnoses in the last decade while Estonia and Portugal have seen marked declines.
Across the wider European region - which includes Russia - the number of HIV cases has topped 2 million for the first time, the WHO said. Nearly four fifths of new cases in Europe are in eastern countries.
Globally, the World Health Organization estimates around 40 percent of the 37 million people living with HIV are unaware of their status.