Eastern Europe Host to Most New HIV/AIDS Cases in Europe in 2017
A joint report by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, published on Nov. 28, depicts the results of the HIV surveillance for the WHO’s European region in 2017. According to the report, HIV cases continue to rise in Europe, with Eastern Europe seeing the largest jump in new diagnoses. While the report notes the pace of increases in new HIV cases in Europe is declining, the WHO has warned that the continent as a whole will fail to meet the 2020 deadline for the ambitious “90-90-90 targets” set by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in 2017 to curb further HIV/AIDS cases.
The results of the report were divided into two separate geographic regions owing to divergent trends across Europe: member-states of the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA) populated one distinct data set; and the rest of the countries, mainly Russia and non-EU/EEA former Soviet republics in the eastern extremes of the WHO’s European region populated the other distinct group of countries.
While EU/EEA countries saw a decline in new HIV cases, mainly stemming from a 20 percent decrease in HIV transmission among men who have sex with men since 2015, countries in the “East” category of the WHO’s European region (Belarus, Estonia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine) saw a 68 percent increase in new HIV cases over the decade, with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova leading the region in new diagnoses. The same trend was observed with AIDS diagnoses, morbidity, and mortality: Western and Central Europe (EU/EEA) saw a steady decrease in deaths from AIDS and AIDS-related complications while Eastern Europe observed a doubling in AIDS diagnoses over the decade and a steady increase in deaths stemming from AIDS and AIDS-related infections, with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Latvia, Armenia, and Belarus reporting the highest figures.
In terms of raw figures, the entire European region reported an increase of 159,420 new HIV diagnoses and 14,703 new AIDS diagnoses. By WHO regions, the Eastern European region maintained the distinction of hosting the most new cases, with 130,861 new cases of HIV and 11,454 new cases of AIDS.
Central Europe (Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Cyprus) reported the lowest rate of new HIV cases (6205 new cases) and new AIDS cases (823 new cases), although the report noted that the region was observing a rapidly increasing number of cases unmatched by other parts of Europe.
Western Europe reported 22,354 new HIV cases and 2426 new AIDS cases, numbers that continue the declining trend of new cases in the region since the 1990s.
Across the continent, however, the report found that men were suffering disproportionately from HIV/AIDS, with men who have sex with men reporting the highest rate of HIV transmission. Additionally, while the EU/EEA observed an overall decline in new diagnoses of HIV/AIDS, over a third of the countries in the larger WHO European region were reporting increases in overall rates of infection.
Inaccessibility to HIV testing and treatment, along with late reporting, were cited as some critical factors hampering efforts to hamper the spread of HIV/AIDS. Additionally, the report drew notice to the peculiarly high figure reported for heterosexual contact as the main mode of transmission among Eastern European countries, suggesting that the social stigma against homosexual activity and HIV/AIDS is a salient obstacle to combating transmission and new cases of the virus and syndrome.
The report also pointed to the significantly higher rate of late-stage AIDS occurrence among drug users utilizing needles, to which WHO officials recommended that “for injecting drug users, they need to have clear needle exchange programs” — programs that are more common in Western rather than Eastern Europe.
European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis stressed that “a lot of progress has been made, but there is still much more we must do.” Pointing to the “stigma of HIV infection and treatment,” Andriukaitis called for more concentrated efforts in “dispelling false beliefs about how HIV and AIDS are spread” along with building up “public health services to support easy and affordable access to testing and medical care for vulnerable groups at risk of HIV infection.”
WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab struck a more somber note in her announcement of the report’s publication, noting that “it is hard to talk about good news in the fact of another year of unacceptably high numbers of people infected with HIV.”
The report notes that for Europe to meet the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets — namely: 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status; 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy; and 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression, all by 2020 — a nearly 80% decline in HIV/AIDS cases would have to be observed across the entire continent within the remaining years of the decade.
While urging “governments, ministers of health and decisions makers” to “scale up your response now,” including “investing wisely in prevention, testing and treatment particularly in key populations to end the AIDS epidemic as promised,” Dr. Jakab also conceded that Europe was “not on course to meet the 90-90-90 targets by the 2020 deadline.”