WHO retracts claim half of Greek HIV infections were self-inflicted, blames 'editing error'

The WHO's latest health inequity report made a startling claim that "about half" of those with HIV deliberately infected themselves in order to claim benefits, a claim not backed by the study cited.

You may have seen this tweet going around yesterday, featuring a screenshot of the most recent issue of New Scientist:

This statistic is unbelievably horrific - that is, it is so horrifying that it is hard to believe it’s true. It comes from the World Health Organisation’s final “Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region” report, which was prepared by University College London’s Institute of Health Inequity. You can read it here.

The passage that the New Scientist piece seems to refer to is this, on page 112:

Suicides rose between 17 percent between 2007 and 2009 and to 25 percent in 2010, according to unofficial 2010 data. The Minister of Health reported a further 40 percent rise in the first half of 2011 compared to the same period in 2010. Suicide attempts have also increased, particularly among people reporting economic distress. Homicide and theft rates have doubled. 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.

In this section, “about half” is cited as coming from a 2011 study published in the Lancet. That study - available to read here - records a 52 percent increase in the number of HIV infections in 2011 compared to 2010. It also claims that “half of the currently observed increases [are] attributable to infections among intravenous drug users”, which sounds like it could be what “about half” in the WHO report was referring to.

However - as Media Matters has pointed out - the section of the WHO report that deals with self-inflicted infections actually claims this:

An authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes. These programmes offer access to synthetic opioids and can have waiting lists of 3 years or more in urban areas.

That figure, in turn, is cited as coming from the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs. It’s not “about half”, not even close. Considering the WHO’s authority on matters like this - which usually means reputable publications like New Scientist can take its reports at face value - it’s a serious mistake to make.

The WHO has now admitted it made a mistake:

In this report, an erroneous reference is made to: “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.”

The sentence should read: "half of the new HIV cases are self-injecting and out of them few are deliberately inflicting the virus". The statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the document, for which WHO apologizes.

If that really was the result of "an error in the editing of the document" - which is PR speak for "typo" - then that's baffling, as what they say the sentence should have read is nothing like what it actually reads. The kindest guess is that two sentences - one about half of those being infected had been sharing needles, one about self-inflicted infections - somehow became combined in a hasty edit.

It's also extremely unfair on the residents of Greece who are - as the report makes very clear - suffering quite enough under the effects of austerity to be given such a desperate reputation on top.

The logo of the World Health Organisation. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.