Europe's HIV epidemic growing at 'alarming pace,' WHO warns

The number of people newly diagnosed with HIV in Europe reached its highest level in 2016, showing the epidemic growing at an ‘alarming pace,’ global health officials said Tuesday.

Last year, 160,000 people contracted the virus that causes AIDS in the 53 countries that make up the World Health Organization’s European region, according to a joint report the agency released with the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

The vast majority of those new infections, around 80 percent, were in Eastern Europe. The new trend was concerning, officials said, because many patients had been carrying the virus for several years at the time of diagnosis—making it harder to treat and more likely to have been passed to others.

“Testing people late, particularly those at higher risk of infection, results in late treatment and further contributes to the ongoing spread of HIV. The later people are diagnosed, the more likely they are to develop AIDS, thus leading to more suffering and death,” WHO’s European regional director, Zsuzsanna Jakab, said in a statement. 

The WHO/ECDC report found that the rate of newly diagnosed HIV infections in the region has risen by 53 percent over the past decade. 

Almost 37 million people worldwide have the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. A majority of the cases are in poorer region of Africa, however the epidemic has also proven to be resilient in wealthier regions of Europe.

According to a recent evidence brief from the ECDC, two out of three countries in Europe and Central Asia acknowledge that stigma and discrimination within key populations is a barrier to the understanding of HIV prevention and testing services.

Britain's Prince Harry takes an HIV test alongside singer Rihanna to highlight World AIDS Day in Bridgetown, Barbados December 1, 2016.  REUTERS/Antonio Miller/Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS)/POOL - TM3ECC116HE01

Britain's Prince Harry takes an HIV test alongside singer Rihanna to highlight World AIDS Day in Bridgetown, Barbados, Dec. 1, 2016.  (Reuters)


“Over half of the reporting countries state that stigma and discrimination within the key population are a barrier to the uptake of prevention services for men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers and prisoners,” the May 2017 evidence brief states.

In addition, the evidence brief notes that stigma and discrimination among health professional is a significant obstacle to receiving HIV prevention services for men who have sex with men and others.

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, recently took an instant HIV test in public as a way to increase awareness and lower stigma around the issue in her country, where more than 5,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus.

George Valiotis, the chief executive of HIV Scotland praised Sturgeon for showing that “taking an HIV test is easy.”

Valiotis told the BBC: “It's important to remember that a positive result no longer means a death sentence, living with HIV is now just like any other long-term health condition.”

Even so, the ECDC report recommended action items including the development and implementation of more effective strategies around reducing discrimination and stigma towards specific impacted populations, especially in health care spaces—and increasing collaboration with community organizations to reduce stigma within key groups.


Christopher Carbone is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @christocarbone.