Estonians fear growth in HIV

  • 2006-06-14
  • by Joel Alas

KEEPING WATCH: Mecaskey fears that Tallinn could become a 'take-off point' for HIV cases given its thriving sex industry.

TALLINN - An international health specialist has warned that Tallinn could become a "take-off point" for HIV infection across Europe, a fear that is fuelled by Tallinn's thriving sex tourism industry and Estonia's growing rate of HIV infection, which remains the highest in Europe.

The disease also appears to have spread from injecting drug users and into the general population, with reports of growing infection levels amongst university students in Tartu. American health economist Jeffrey W. Mecaskey said Estonia's health care sector should brace for the impact, as thousands of HIV sufferers are now entering the disease's critical phase. Mecaskey, who has visited Estonia three times in the past year, is part of a team of health experts attempting to help the country deal with its HIV epidemic.

"People may believe this is a problem isolated to Narva and the northeast, but Tallinn would be regarded as the other epicenter," Mecaskey told The Baltic Times. "There is a concern transnationally that this could be a take-off point for infection around the world. As long as sex tourists can comfortably negotiate away the use of a condom with a sex worker for a couple of euros, we have a problem." Estonia has the highest prevalence of HIV in Europe. About 1.1 percent of its population carries the disease 's more than double the average rate of infection in OECD nations.

Researchers have tracked the disease's spread from Russia through St. Petersburg and into northeastern Estonia as passed through syringe-using drug addicts. But the disease has now jumped into the general population via sexual infection.
Convincing people to be tested for the disease remained one of the biggest challenges, Mecaskey said. Young men, particularly marginalized Russians, were reluctant to be tested. A growing number of untested women were passing the disease on to their unborn children, leaving a trail of "HIV babies," he said.

The Ministry of Social Affairs this year launched a new strategy, which includes educating people through schools and providing testing for military recruits. Coordinator of the national HIV strategy, Triin Tikas, said Estonians needed to take "national ownership" of the problem. Tikas confirmed that those working in the sex industry were one of the key areas of concern, particularly as they were likely to come into contact with foreign visitors.

"This year, we will undertake a population study among prostitutes to provide more correct data on HIV prevalence. We must work in cooperation with Finland to warn people in their own countries before they come. There are always two sides 's the buyer and the seller. Finnish customers make up a rather significant part of the customers."