06.17.12

Prostitutes Are Scapegoated as HIV Panic Grips Athens

In Greece, a new anti-HIV campaign aims to combat a 15-fold increase in infections—but women forced into prostitution are suffering. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

No matter who wins the Greek elections, they may not be able to help “Maria.” The 28-year-old Athenian sex worker is feeling the effects of austerity in a different way than most are. As business has slowed, she has had to drop her prices and take part-time work in a local brothel to help her provide for her aging mother and young son. She says her clientele has changed from what she said used to be businessmen to a much lower class. She describes her new customer as “not very nice.”

But Maria’s business has not taken a downturn because Greek men have less money to spend on sex. Rather, her once-steady trade has been the subject of intense scrutiny since late May, when Athens’s police and health workers started a sweeping crusade to force-test the city’s prostitutes for HIV and then broadcast the women’s names and pictures in a citywide media push they call a “warning campaign” to customers. The first woman to be “named and shamed” was a 22-year-old Russian sex worker who tested positive for HIV—more than 1,000 men called the local Center for Disease Control and Prevention the day after her picture appeared in newspapers and on billboards. Since then more than 20 prostitutes have been identified in the campaign, even as health authorities decry the ads as unethical.

“It’s a matter of privacy,” says Maria, who asked not to use her real name. “You can’t broadcast a person’s medical condition without their permission.”

The crackdown on sex workers is part of a panic campaign to try to curb the sharp spike in HIV infections across Greece. Since the end of 2010, HIV/AIDS infections have increased 15-fold, or 1,500 percent, says Nikos Dedes, the head of Positive Voice, a group for people who live with HIV. He blames the economic crisis gripping the country for the sudden resurgence of the disease.

“The political crisis in Greece is the result of a decades-old economic crises, not the other way around,” Dedes told The Daily Beast. “You can see its effects in the macrocosm of HIV infections.”

Dedes says austerity measures and what he calls a “decay in public health programs” have caused the shocking rise in the number of Greeks diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. The majority of the new cases are addicts—many of them young gay men—who turn to prostitution to support a drug habit. Because Greece can no longer afford to fund proven programs like clean-needle exchanges and free testing, the spread of HIV has reached epidemic proportions.

“You can’t broadcast a person’s medical condition without their permission.”

“When a state does not make sure services are available that have been proven to be effective, then the responsibility rests on them,” Dedes says. “These are victims of the failure of the Greek state.”

As funds have dried up for public-health programs that kept the spread of HIV in check, Greek medical authorities have turned to increasingly more extreme measures to fend off a crisis. In May, Greek police arrested 16 sex workers who tested positive for HIV and accused them of knowingly spreading the infection. The alleged sex workers were remanded in custody for several days before Médecins Sans Frontières Greece intervened.

“You cannot protect public health by penalizing patients,” said MSFG director Reveka Papadopoulou. Most of the women who were arrested in the roundup didn’t know they were carriers of the disease because they didn’t have access to the public health care that would allow them to get tested.

Locking up patients in this way is inhumane, Papadopoulou says.

In April, Greek police mounted another raid that netted a group of illegal immigrants whom authorities had determined to be a public health risk. The immigrants languished in custody for almost two weeks before health tests could be carried out. Finally, those without HIV were allowed to go free, but the infected immigrants were repatriated to their countries of origin without being given treatment, a move that likely only served to spread the infection further.

The Greek elections may calm or ignite the euro zone, but Maria’s situation will be the same. No matter who wins, her country’s economic outlook will remain dire for the foreseeable future, meaning that public care will likely continue to decline and the health crisis will deepen. Dedes says that the risks faced by the country’s most vulnerable groups look bleak if public health isn’t made a priority in a new government.

“Political instability doesn’t help,” the activist says. “Bad governments have spent away the resources. What we need are good policies, not impulsive reactions to health problems like HIV. Otherwise this is just the beginning.”