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26 November 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 5:32am

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.

By Ian Steadman

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.

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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.