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Eastern Europe: European Commission Warns Of 'Resurgent' HIV/AIDS Epidemic

  • Ahto Lobjakas

http://gdb.rferl.org/14117F45-F3D8-4F47-970F-E511BBBE4B79_w203.gif --> http://gdb.rferl.org/14117F45-F3D8-4F47-970F-E511BBBE4B79_mw800_mh600.gif The European Commission yesterday warned that a serious HIV/AIDS epidemic is resurfacing in Eastern Europe. Infection rates in some new EU member states, as well as Russia and Ukraine, are said to be the highest in the world. To combat the disease, the EU is promising "political leadership" and more money.

Brussels, 9 September (RFE/RL) -- The commission said the threat presented by HIV/AIDS on the eastern flank of the bloc -- both in some new member states as well as in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus -- requires immediate action.

Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder told journalists in Brussels that the commission is launching a drive to put the issue at the top of the EU's political agenda.

She said the EU will organize a series of high-level meetings and strive for greater international coordination of measures to fight the epidemic.

She said the situation is particularly bad in the Baltic countries and among the EU's eastern neighbors.

"We do know that, for example, in the eastern countries, particularly Estonia and Lithuania, the figures are alarming and are increasing," Gminder said. "And we do feel that, not only in the EU as such, but also in the neighboring countries, more effort has to made."

A background study prepared by the commission and seen by RFE/RL in fact says that Estonia and Latvia -- and not Lithuania -- bear the brunt of the resurgence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The study estimates that some 1.3 million people -- but possibly as many as 1.9 million -- live with HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. One percent of the entire population of Estonia is thought to be infected, while the Latvian figure is 0.4 percent.
Officials say the drop in public awareness of HIV/AIDS is due partly to success in finding medicines that help control the symptoms of the disease. A cure for HIV/AIDS has not been found; nor has a vaccination.


Elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe, infection trends are said to have stabilized at low levels. In Western Europe, infection levels average 0.3 percent.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic first erupted in Russia and its neighboring countries in the mid- to late 1990s.

In Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, the rate of new infections is currently said to be the highest in the world. In Ukraine and Russia one adult in every 100 is infected. The main age group affected is young people between 15-25 years, most of them drug users. However, the commission study says the virus is also spreading in the general population and is increasingly more difficult to follow and prevent.

Gminder said there has been a dangerous drop in the perception of the threat posed by HIV/AIDS: "We do have a situation where after many years of living with the disease, public attention is diminishing, while at the same time the [infection] figures are going up."

The commission study says a certain general complacency followed the stabilization of infection rates in Western Europe in the late 1990s. That stabilization is believed to be the result of what was seen as a strong political commitment and awareness at the time.

Officials say the drop in public awareness of HIV/AIDS is due partly to success in finding medicines that help control the symptoms of the disease. A cure for HIV/AIDS has not been found; nor has a vaccination.

The EU is already the biggest contributor to the UN-run global fund for communicable diseases. The bloc has earmarked a total of 1.2 billion euros ($1.46 billion) between 2003 and 2006 to fight HIV/AIDS.

However, spokeswoman Gminder yesterday warned that money alone is not a solution: "We do feel that at this stage it is not just a question of money, money, money and putting more money into it; but that it's also a question of 'how do we make use of that money and how do the various governments deal with the money available and [whether] we have the prevention necessary on the global level?'"

The commission document urges EU government to show political leadership and coordinate efforts. The coordination drive will begin with a high-level conference in Lithuania on 16-17 September.
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