As an international conference on AIDS winds down in Mexico, Deutsche Welle spoke with a European expert on the alarming rise of HIV infection rates on the continent.
Experts warn many Europeans are unaware they have contracted the virus
Around 25,000 scientists, politicians, physicians and activists met in Mexico City this week for the 17th International AIDS Conference. They discussed everything from vaccines to male circumcision. But one of the largest items on the agenda was HIV infection rates around the world.
New HIV infection rates were basically the same in 2007 as in 2006 -- about 2.7 million people, with a very small increase last year over the prior year. This is according to a new report released by UNAIDS. However, there are still five new infections for every two people who are newly added on treatment, Dr. Paul De Lay of UNAIDS told news agency Reuters.
"Clearly, we're not pushing back the epidemic enough," he added.
Rates of new infections are rising in many countries, including China, Indonesia, Kenya, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam, and even rich nations such as Germany, Britain and Australia.
According to Giedrius Likatavicius, AIDS expert at the European Center for the Prevention and Control of Disease (ECDC) in Stockholm, AIDS in Europe is still a problem that needs to be taken seriously.
Number of infections in Europe on the rise
HIV infection rates are on the rise in Europe, especially in the eastern part of the continent
The number of new HIV infections has increased across all regions of Europe. According to data gathered by the European AIDS research institute, EUHIV, in 2006, there were over 26,000 new cases of HIV in the EU.
Especially alarming is the number of infections in eastern Europe. One and a half million people there have contracted HIV or are suffering from full-blown AIDS. Most of them are drug addicts who were infected by using contaminated needles. The AIDS virus is transmitted quite quickly in this manner, said Likatavicius, who added that the odds of infection are very high among this group of people.
In western Europe the number of infections has shot up, especially in Great Britain, where the rates have doubled.
The highest British infection rate is centered in London, where over 40 percent of all new cases were reported. The most prevalent way the virus is transmitted is through unprotected heterosexual sex; though almost a third of new infections were reported among homosexual men.
Virus going undetected
The EU has long defined the war on AIDS as one of its main health objectives. In 2004, health ministers, AIDS experts, and both economic and civil society representatives gathered at a high-level AIDS conference in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
They discussed how to better explain AIDS, especially to young people, who still know very little about the deadly virus. In addition to that, around one third of those Europeans who have contracted the virus don't know they are infected.
The EU Commission has called on the pharmaceutical industruy to develop more HIV/AIDS medicines and vaccines
AIDS expert Likatavicius told Deutsche Welle that because these people don’t know they are infected, they contribute greatly to the spread of the virus.
The ECDC has started a campaign to make it easier to test for HIV, and by doing so, making this group, who are unaware of their infection, smaller.
Another important point is the accelerated approval of new medicines and vaccines. To this end the European Commission has called on the industry, in particular the pharmaceutical industry, to work harder on a solution to the problem.