Prague, 16 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The enlargement of the European Union eastward this year has brought the problem of HIV/AIDS onto center stage.
The European Commission says in a new report that infection rates in some of the new member states are estimated as the highest in the world. And the same goes for those countries that are now the bloc's neighbors, including Russia.
European Commission health expert Matti Rajala told RFE/RL that the situation in some cases is alarming.
"We have very worrying signs in some countries. We know that in Estonia and Latvia -- although not in Lithuania -- rates of new infections have in the past few years been really alarming. In one year, according to international statistics, Estonia had the highest rate of increase[of all]," Rajala said. "The same applies to Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. In some areas of these countries, the numbers of people with the HIV virus has reached already 1 percent [of the population], which epidemiologically is alarming indeed."
The conference hopes to tackle the problem on both technical and political levels. Rajala said some 350 top health experts are attending, plus delegations from the European Union, EU-candidate countries, the United States, and the United Nations. Representatives of drug companies and nongovernmental organizations are also attending.
World Health Organization Assistant Director-General Jack Chow said in Vilnius that an estimated 1.8 million people are living with HIV in Europe and Central Asia. And he said that the EU's eastward enlargement makes the matter more urgent.
In some areas of Eastern Europe, 1 percent of the people are infected with HIV.
"The overwhelming majority of those living with the virus are young people, 80 percent of them are young people," Chow said. "The enlargement of the EU means there will be an increased flow of people and commerce, within the EU and with trading partners, which requires a speeding up of both prevention and treatment in order to curb the epidemic."
Chow said Central Asia is of particular concern to the WHO.
"We have very high concerns about the rate of growth in Central Asia, the primary driver there is intravenous drug use, which concentrates the epidemic in marginalized populations," Chow said. "That, in turn, could spread the epidemic across the entire [social spectrum], making it a generalized epidemic."
Chow said that most of the people carrying the virus don't even know they have it, and that helps spread the disease ever further. He says that even when people know they are infected, the social stigma that goes along with HIV/AIDS often causes them to hide it.
Chow said that experience from handling the disease shows that access to treatment and to basic health services helps to lessen the stigma of HIV, and provides an incentive for those living with the virus to get the help that they need.
The Vilnius conference follows the EU's first AIDS conference in Dublin in February. Officials say that what emerges from Vilnius could serve as a model for future AIDS-control efforts.
"We're pushing the advancement of proven public health strategies, and prevention, treatment and care," Chow said. "We are calling for invigorated commitment to civil-society partnerships, private/public sector, business and labor, to knit together a cohesive response, to get these programs into the communities where people are living."
European Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder said in Brussels last week that the commission is launching a drive to put the HIV/AIDS issue at the top of the EU's political agenda. She noted that in Western Europe, a sense of complacency has followed the stabilization of infection rates there in the late 1990s.
"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," Gminder said.
The Vilnius conference is one step in an EU drive to bring the situation better under control.