In an unprecedented blunder, the World Health Organization has had to apologize after accidentally accusing half of new HIV patients in Greece of self-inflicting for the purpose of benefits fraud. Citing the Greek economic crisis and a payout of $1000 a month for HIV treatment, WHO charged that the reason the Greek HIV rates had increased so significantly was because people were desperate for government help and the HIV program remained one of the few that hadn’t been cut by the government.
Greece does have a serious problem with HIV, but the blame lies squarely on the Greek state, not on those suffering with the disease. The country has had to cut a number of successful HIV programs due to tough austerity measures, including vital needle exchange programs for addicts. Since the end of 2010, HIV/AIDS infections in Athens alone have increased by 1500 percent. The blame is due to the economic crisis and cuts in services. Nikos Dedes, head of a support group for people with HIV called Positive Voice, told The Daily Beast that it is not the patients’ fault; it is the Greek state who is to blame. “When a state does not make sure services are available that have been proven to be effective, then the responsibility rests on them,” he says. “These are victims of the failure of the Greek state. To imply they did it themselves is ludicrous.”
The WHO admitted that its 184-page final report called the Review of Social Determinants and the Health Divide in the WHO European Region is wrong about Greece, but besides issuing an apology and a correction, they can do little to stop the spread of the misinformation. The organization claims it had meant to say that half of all new HIV cases are due to those who inject drugs, not who self-inflict. In a statement, the agency apologized, blaming an editorial error for the mix up: “WHO recognizes that there is no evidence suggesting that deliberate self-infection with HIV goes beyond a few anecdotal cases.”
Despite the error, the situation is still dire in Greece, according to the WHO. Suicides rose by 25 percent between 2009 and 2010, 40 percent between 2010 and 2011. More than 15 percent of people surveyed had not been to a doctor or dentist in at least two years. Homicide and theft rates have doubled each year for the last three years and prostitution has risen, blamed on “economic hardship” according to the report.
Just before elections in 2012, Greek authorities started to forcefully test prostitutes for HIV in a panicked attempt to stop the rampant spread of the disease. In May of that year, 16 sex workers who tested positive were arrested and charged with knowingly spreading the disease. Publication of their photos spread panic through the male community in Athens, but raised concerns about inhumane treatment. At the time Reveka Papadopoulou of Médecins Sans Frontières told
The Daily Beast reported that locking up HIV patients is “inhumane”. “You cannot protect public health by penalizing patients. 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.”
Before WHO corrected its error, a number of conservative pundits used the falsely-reported Greek dilemma to bolster the theory that inflicting oneself with a fatal virus was a product of a welfare state. According to NPR, the “incorrect line made it into a Drudge Report headline, on to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, and has turned into something of an Internet meme.”
Even if Greeks aren’t self-inflicting themselves with HIV, the problem is still staggering and the continuing economic crisis will only make matters worse. The number of new HIV cases doesn’t change with the revelation about how they really got the disease.