Published November 26, 2013
Update: The World Health Organization on Tuesday backed away from a controversial claim that Greek citizens were intentionally infecting themselves with HIV to receive economic benefits.
In a statement, the WHO apologized for the mistake and said it was the result of an editing error.
The original WHO report, released in September, had the following erroneous reference that created controversy: “HIV rates and heroin use have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 per month and faster admission on to drug substitution programmes.”
Instead, the WHO said it would be accurate to say that slightly more than half of Greece's new HIV cases are among those who inject drugs.
"WHO recognizes that there is no evidence suggesting that deliberate self-infection with HIV goes beyond a few anecdotal cases," the organization said.
The WHO noted that Greece’s HIV infections increased 52% in 2011, due largely to infections by people who have injected drugs.
"The causes for this increase are multifaceted and WHO welcomes the work of the ad hoc expert group and other entities to improve understanding of them and to recommend appropriate measures to extend the benefits of the comprehensive package of interventions for harm reduction to all people who inject drugs," the group said.
The WHO report cited an October 2011 report from The Lancet, which cited a separate 2011 report by the University Mental Health Research Institute. The UMHRI report noted "the well-founded suspicion" that some problem drug users "are intentionally infected with HIV, because of the benefit that are entitled to (approximately 1,400 euros every two months)."
The UMHRI authors said this may also be linked to the fact they will be able to receive quicker access to drug-substitution programs that can have waiting lists of three to four years.
Despite the HIV error, other facets of the WHO report still paint an alarming picture regarding the health implications of Europe’s economic crisis.
The findings highlight how startling levels of unemployment and severe, mandated government cutbacks are trickling down to European citizens.
The WHO concludes that the economic crisis that began in 2008 has “exacerbated” health problems in Europe and “exposed stark social and economic inequities within and between countries.”
Greece has been among Europe’s hardest-hit, with its debt crisis causing the country’s economy to shrink and nearly knocking it out of the eurozone entirely.
According to the WHO report, suicides soared by 17% in Greece between 2007 and 2009 and then another 25% in 2010. As the crisis deepened in the first half of 2011, suicide attempts surged 40%.
Greece’s unemployment rate stood at an alarming level of 26.9% as of September, tops in the eurozone. After Spain, which had a 26% unemployment rate, the next closest country is Portugal at 16.3%, according to FactSet Research.
Athens has also been forced to take heavy budget cuts as it seeks to get its deficit under control and maintain support from the European Central Bank.
According to the WHO report, health-care access has declined due to a 40% cut in hospital budgets. An estimated 26,000 public health workers, including 9,100 doctors, are expected to lose their jobs.
The WHO said an analysis of the EU survey of income and living conditions in Greece found a 15% increase between 2007 and 2009 of the likelihood of people reporting that they did not go to a doctor or dentist despite feeling it was necessary.
“These adverse trends in Greece pose a warning to other countries undergoing significant fiscal austerity, including Spain, Ireland and Italy. It also suggests that ways need to be found for cash-strapped governments to consolidate finances without undermining much-needed investments in health,” the report said.