Latvia, Estonia under HIV-epidemic threat

  • 2000-11-30
  • TBT staff
RIGA - Ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the Baltic countries of Latvia and Estonia have released some threatening statistics.

The number of HIV-infected drug users in Latvia has risen to epidemic level, with 399 HIV-infected persons registered this year, bringing the total to nearly 900, the director of the AIDS prevention center, Andris Ferdats, told reporters Nov. 20. The majority of the infected are intravenous drug addicts.

In Estonia, the total number of HIV infections is 334, following a dramatic rise by 277 this year, according to the country's health inspectorate.

In Lithuania, the number of HIV-infected persons has reached 257, most of whom became infected while using drugs.

Latvia - tops

Each month an average of 60 to 70 new HIV cases are registered in Latvia, and several people die from the disease, Ferdats said. Some 64 percent of infected people are intravenous drug addicts, some 10 percent have acquired the infection through homosexual contacts and approximately as many through heterosexual contacts.

The experts, however, have stressed the true number of HIV carriers and AIDS patients is at least three times higher.

Soon the deadly infection mayspread beyond drug users and start affecting the general public, Ferdats said. He explained that Latvia now has a double epidemic - the growing number of drug addicts being the first wave, and the spread of HIV infections the second.

During the third wave the infection will expand from drug users to the general public because HIV-positive incidence is very high among people using drugs.

According to official statistics 10 percent to 20 percent of Latvia's intravenous drug users are HIV-infected, but the Western European experience indicates that this rate may reach as high as 60 percent.

About 40 percent of drug users are under 19 years old. "HIV infection will spread slowly and continuously, threatening the entire community, in particular young people," Ferdats warned, adding the greatest risk group will be people under 30.

Experience shows that HIV starts spreading rapidly as soon as the virus reaches the community of intra-venous drug addicts. In Latvia this happened in 1998 and the number of HIV infections in the country has been climbing fast ever since.

To date two HIV-infected babies, born to HIV-positive mothers, have been registered in Latvia. For more than 80 people the source of infection has not been identified.

In the first 10 months of 2000 a total of 77 underage HIV-infected persons have been registered in Latvia, of whom 73 are aged 16 to 18 years, mostly males. Two of the underage HIV carriers are 15 years old.

The number of HIV infected inmates in Latvia has increased as well, from 130 in mid-summer to 188 currently. Most of them are intravenous drug addicts. Latvian prison admi-nistration chief Vitolds Zahars attributed the sharp growth in the number of HIV carriers among inmates to the rapid expansion of the disease in the country in general saying "prison is the dirty mirror of society."

So far no full-blown AIDS patients have been registered in Latvia's jails, but there are several people with symptoms of the disease. They are undergoing treatment.

HIV carriers in Latvian jails aren't separated from other inmates in accordance with world practice since separation of the infected persons would be a violation of their human rights, explained Zahars.

Zahars admitted that in a closed territory like a jail infection may spread but stressed that prison staff are doing their best to avert further spread of the disease.

The highest number of HIV carriers is in Riga, at 626, followed by the western Latvian port town of Ventspils, with 40 HIV infected persons, and the seaside-resort town of Jurmala, with 35.

The spread of HIV has gained pace in Latvia since 1998 when 163 new HIV cases were registered com-pared with 25 new cases in 1997.

Upswing in Narva

The Estonian Health Inspectorate registered 23 new HIV carriers last week, bringing the total for this month to 66.

Eleven cases were registered in the northeastern city of Narva, 10 in Kohtla-Jarve and Johvi and two in the capital Tallinn. Most of the victims are between 16 and 19 years of age, a spokesperson for the Estonian Health Inspec-torate told the Baltic News Service on Nov. 27.

In October, 106 people tested positive and this year a total of 277 HIV carriers have been registered in Estonia as well as three people who have developed AIDS.

As many as 238 of HIV positive persons discovered this year come from Narva, most of them intravenous drug users.

The youngest known carrier of the virus is a boy of 13. There are 54 women and 43 convicts among the carriers.

In all, there are 334 HIV positive persons in Estonia, six of whom have developed AIDS. Four infected persons have died this year. Over the past 12 years, 24 people have died of AIDS in this country.

Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus grew out of all proportion this August when eight new cases were registered. Between January and July seven people tested HIV positive while in the preceding three years only nine persons per year were diagnosed HIV positive.

In September the inspectorate registered 90 and in October 106 new cases of HIV infection.

Lithuania - the lowest

Compared with other European countries, Lithuania has the lowest number of people infected with HIV, according to the director of the Lithuanian AIDS center, Saulius Caplinskas.

Lithuania has 6.5 cases of HIV virus infections per 100,000 inhabitants, whereas the figure in Latvia is 33.8, in Estonia it is 26.1, in Slovenia 7.9, in Hungary nine, in Poland 15.2, in Kaliningrad 350, in Italy 363 and in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa 681.

According to the latest figures, there are 257 cases of HIV virus infections in Lithuania, 33 of which are women.

The highest number of cases is in Klaipeda, Lithuania's port city with 109. Vilnius was second with 87, followed by Druskininkai (10), Kaunas (9), Siauliai (6), Panevezys (5).

There are 18 HIV virus carriers among foreigners currently residing in Lithuania.

Some 146 persons became infected through the use of narcotics, 36 people have already developed AIDS and 28 persons have died of AIDS in Lithuania.

Since the start of the epidemic, 34.3 million people around the world including children have been infected with the HIV virus, of whom 13.2 million have developed AIDS, and 18.8 million have died of AIDS.

Last year 5.4 million people were infected with the HIV virus and 2.8 million died of AIDS.