Is homophobia to blame for Eastern Europe’s “alarming” rise in HIV?

Three-quarters of new cases in the WHO European Region were in areas where sex between men is more likely to be stigmatised.

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The number of people diagnosed with HIV in the WHO European Region has risen to “alarmingly high levels”, according to the World Health Organization. But while HIV rates are falling in the EU/EEA, 75 per cent of the almost 160,000 new cases in 2017 occurred in Russia and Ukraine.

Masoud Dara, co-ordinator for communicable diseases at WHO Europe, says the figures show that the stigmatisation in Eastern Europe of sex between men is having a knock-on effect on awareness, diagnoses and treatment.

“The more [men who have sex with men] are stigmatised, the more they will be frightened to come forward for testing and hide their sexual orientation,” Dara told Spotlight. “This can lead to ongoing transmitting of HIV.”

Compounding this trend is a similarly regressive attitude towards drug use. “Prevention is lagging behind; services like needle exchanges, that are recommended by the WHO, are taboo,” Dara told Spotlight.

Within the EU, of which Russia and Ukraine are not a part, the number of new infections has declined. This has been driven largely by 20 per cent drop in diagnoses among men who have sex with men, which Dara says is a “great success story” of communication and engagement. Awareness-raising campaigns, widespread testing, and a high standard of care have all contributed to reducing the prevalence of HIV. “These communities are well aware that they need to be tested as early as possible,” and those who are HIV-positive have access to medication like pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment, which reduces the likelihood of infection during intercourse. “The earlier you detect it, the earlier you put them on the right treatment, and then they will not be transmitting HIV to others.”

The WHO is working to reduce stigmatisation in Eastern Europe, and educate citizens both about preventative safe-sex measures such as condoms and lubricants, and appropriate treatment. It is critical, Dara says, that those living with the condition “get the care that he or she deserves”.

The United Nations’ UNAIDS programme found that just 35 per cent of adults living with HIV in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region were receiving retroviral treatment, the second-lowest rate in the world.

Of the findings, the European commissioner for health and food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis said that “we must overcome the stigma of HIV infection and treatment and continue our efforts in dispelling false beliefs about how HIV and AIDS are spread”.

The WHO report was published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, which will fall on 1 December this year.

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.