Athens HIV infections rise 1,450 percent after authorities canceled needle exchange program
The head of Médecins sans Frontières Greece has accused the Athens authorities of pursuing a wrong and dangerous public health strategy that ignores the root causes of disease outbreaks and penalises those most at risk.
Reveka Papadopoulou, the general director of the medical aid charity’s Greek branch, said cases of HIV/Aids in the city centre had gone up last year by 1,450% on 2010’s figures. MSF attributed the rise largely to the suspension of a needle exchange programme for the capital’s intravenous drug users.
The reduction of public schemes designed to help the most vulnerable on the capital’s streets had been compounded, Papadopoulou said, by a crackdown on illegal immigrants and other groups regarded by the authorities as a threat to public health.
“What that generates first of all is against any medical ethics. Secondly it is dangerous for public health,” she told the Guardian. “You cannot protect public health by penalising, by using this policing approach on the ones that you consider possible transmitters of the disease.”
Referring to the use of a “sanitary police”, Papadopoulou added: “This has nothing to do with a lack of resources. It’s a misconception. It’s a wrong approach; it’s a dangerous approach.”
In March, the Greek government launched a crackdown on illegal immigrants in Athens, thousands of whom live in unsanitary conditions in the heart of the city. And in April the government sparked criticism from Amnesty International and others when it announced plans to hold illegal immigrants considered a risk to public health in indefinite detention for compulsory health checks and treatment for HIV/Aids and contagious diseases.
In May, just days before the last election, police detained a group of HIV-positive women for allegedly working as prostitutes and trying to inflict serious harm on clients. Twelve of the women, from Greece, eastern Europe and Russia, had their photographs and identities released to the media. The affair outraged human rights groups.
Papadopoulou said the mentality of the state, along with a lack of capacity and resources, meant the dramatically deteriorating situation of the Greek healthcare system could well continue even after Sunday’s vote.
“We are witnessing a system, a state, which is paralysed because of the elections. But even after the elections, unfortunately, I am afraid that we will see the situation deteriorating,” she said, criticising the erection of barriers to basic care such as a shortage of medicine, a charge of €5 (£4) per hospital visit and an overall reduction in public hospital budgets.
Papadopoulou said the lack of treatment available to illegal immigrants meant there was a large population on the street “without treatment, without services, and of course they continue to transmit.
“This is the schizophrenic attitude of the authorities of yesterday and today: by the end of the day accusing the victims of being the perpetrators.”
[Blood vial via luchschen / Shutterstock]