AIDS conference warns of resurgent threat

  • 2004-09-29
  • By Breffni O’Rourke
RFE/RL VILNIUS - The enlargement of the European Union this year brought the problem of HIV/AIDS onto center stage, with a conference held earlier this month in Lithuania highlighting the risks of the disease.

The European Commission recently reported that infection rates among some new member states are estimated as being the highest in the world, with the same holding true for countries that are now the bloc's neighbors, including Russia.

European Commission health expert Matti Rajala said that in some cases the situation is alarming.

"We have very worrying signs in some countries. We know that in Estonia and Latvia 's although not in Lithuania 's 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 [in 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," he added.

The Vilnius conference, attended by some 350 top health experts, plus delegations from the European Union, EU-candidate countries, the United States, and the United Nations, tried to tackle the problem on both technical and political levels.

The World Health Organization's assistant director general, Jack Chow, said that an estimated 1.8 million people are living with HIV in Europe and Central Asia. He added that the EU's eastward enlargement makes the matter more urgent.

"The overwhelming majority of those living with the virus are young people - 80 percent of them are young people," Chow said. "EU enlargement 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 people carrying the virus don't even know they have it, which helps spread the disease ever further. He emphasized 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 experience with handling the disease showed that access to treatment and basic health services helped lessen the stigma of HIV and provided an incentive for those living with the virus to get the help that they needed.

The Vilnius conference followed the EU's first AIDS conference in Dublin in February. Officials said that what emerged 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, the 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 was 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 had 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.