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AIDS - Europe’s dirty secret

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Europe’s population becomes more complacent, and HIV cases steadily rise as a new regional survey reveals worrying levels of ignorance about the basic facts

More than twenty years since AIDS came to the world’s attention, and the epidemic shows no sign of disappearing.

News coverage of AIDS in recent years has focused almost exclusively on Africa. This has helped portray the disease as a problem for developing countries. And while almost 95% of new cases are recorded in the developing world, governments and the media have largely ignored the rising number of cases in their own European backyard.

A total of 23,600 new HIV infections were recorded in the EU in 2005. In some countries, the number of reported cases has doubled since 1998. Equally disconcerting is the fact that heterosexual sex is now the most common means of transmission. This proves that ‘safe sex’ messages are not getting through to young people in Europe, who are fast becoming less likely to use condoms than reported five years ago.

Ignorance is not bliss

Emma Bickerstaff from the London-based National AIDS Trust (NAT), an NGO that works to raise awareness of issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, says that the problem amongst young people is less about complacency and more about ignorance. ‘Sex education is not a compulsory part of the school curriculum,’ adding that ‘many people leave school with almost no knowledge of HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.’

This viewpoint is backed up by a recent EU-wide survey by Eurobarometer. When questioned, 45% of EU citizens said they thought it was possible to become infected with HIV by sharing a glass with, donating blood to, or taking care of an HIV/AIDS sufferer. And while 69% of French respondents knew that it was not possible to catch HIV through kissing on the mouth, only 16% of Slovakians were so sure. Knowledge of the dangers of HIV/AIDS appears to be lower in the newer EU member states. For example, just 16% of Slovakians and Latvians, 17% of Lithuanians and 25% of Estonians knew that the disease could not be transmitted by donating blood to an HIV sufferer, compared with 89% of Swedes and 87% of Danes.

Blazing the campaign trail

So what can be done to educate Europeans about the the world's biggest preventable killler to come? The 15-24 age group accounted for more than 50% of new HIV cases in Europe in 2005. These people are too young to remember the hard-hitting information campaigns of the 1980s and in the last 20 years there has been no major publicity drive aimed at raising mass awareness of HIV and AIDS. Worse, many of the prevention programmes put in place when AIDS first became a major health issue have not been sustained.

But while the 1980s campaigns were very successful at getting basic messages to a large number of people very quickly, Bickerstaff believes that they actually created a lot of long-term stigma around HIV. It was portrayed as a deadly disease that could spread throughout the population very quickly. This bred complacency when such scenarios did not take place. Worse; it also stopped some sufferers and at-risk groups from seeking help for fear of having their HIV revealed. ‘HIV has changed in the last 25 years,’ Bickerstaff muses. ‘It is no longer a death sentence. If tested early, you can have a normal life expectancy. It is more of a long-term health condition.’

Know your audience

With World AIDS Day approaching, the European Union recently launched a new public awareness campaign under the banner: ‘AIDS – Remember Me?’ At the same time, some member states have launched their own advertising efforts. But patterns of infection differ across Europe and new campaigns need to be targeted at high-risk groups.

In Great Britain, ‘NAT’ says that gay men and the African community account for a large proportion of new infections, whereas in Eastern Europe, a lack of needle exchange schemes means that drug users who inject are at particular risk. ‘Knowing your epidemic, and understanding the drivers of the epidemic – factors including male-female inequality and homophobia - is absolutely fundamental to the long-term response to AIDS,’ says Dr Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS.

For the EU, this means not only tackling its own AIDS problem but also helping to improve the situation outside its borders. According to the World Health Organisation, the number of reported HIV infections in Europe and Central Asia rose from 30,000 in 1985 to 900,000 in 2005, 90% of which were in Estonia, Russia and Ukraine. With only 64% those who needed antiretroviral treatment actually receiving it in 2005, AIDS in Europe is far from being under control.

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