It has been more than a decade since the start of Greece’s government-debt crisis in 2009. Although the Greek financial crisis received global coverage, the effect that it had on the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Greece is less known.
Between 2010 and 2011, the rate of HIV transmission in Greece increased by 60%, with data correlating the rise in HIV infections to the country’s declining GDP, decreased health care budget and increased national poverty. While Greece has seen a strong economic recovery in recent years, it continues to struggle with the aftermath of the recession-induced HIV/AIDS outbreak, which particularly affected its most vulnerable communities. However, there have been ongoing efforts to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS in Greece, support historically marginalized communities at higher risk of infection and educate the public to reduce stigma.
The Past and Present of HIV/AIDS in Greece
Prior to the recession, Greece had one of the lowest HIV infection rates in Europe. Yet, by 2010, the recession had left nearly a quarter of the country’s population at risk of poverty, living on incomes below 60% of the national median. The country’s worsening economic conditions and growing poverty levels had devastating effects on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
For instance, statistics reported by the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention show that positive HIV results among people who inject drugs (PWID) increased 34-fold in Greece between 2010 and 2012. Furthermore, research has shown that lack of housing was “the most important predictor of HIV seropositivity” among PWIDs living in Athens during this period, with homelessness more than doubling their risk of HIV infection.
According to the World Bank, the overall prevalence of HIV among the Greek population aged 15 to 49 increased from 0.1% in 2011 to 0.2% in 2012, where it remained as of 2021. With an estimated 17,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, Greece is now among the top 10 European countries with the most HIV/AIDS-infected inhabitants, according to the CIA World Factbook.
The Good News
Fortunately, several organizations are making a positive impact by providing support and resources for people living with HIV/AIDS in Greece. One notable example is Positive Voice, the Greek “Association of people living with HIV/AIDS.” Founded in 2009, Positive Voice is funded by the Los Angeles-based AIDS Health Care Foundation (AHF). Together, AHF and Positive Voice develop targeted interventions, for both people living with HIV/AIDS and the greater population. Positive Voice works to safely monitor and treat HIV/AIDS in Greece, as well as to educate the public and reduce stigma. It especially targets vulnerable communities most at risk of infection, including men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers, refugees, Roma communities and people in prison.
In 2022, Greek lawmakers also approved the use of pre-exposure prophylactic drugs (PrEP). PrEP is an antiretroviral medication, most often prescribed in a daily oral dose. It is highly effective at preventing HIV among individuals who are HIV-negative but at risk of infection. In fact, a 2021 modeling study showed that, if officials had detected the 2010 HIV outbreak in Athens one to two years earlier and introduced interventions like PrEP, the country would have saved between €35.2 million and €53.2 million. Experts now widely support the use of antiretroviral drugs like PrEP as a safe, cost-effective intervention for managing HIV/AIDS in Greece.
Greek leaders and organizations like Positive Voice have made notable progress in the fight to treat, prevent and educate the public about HIV/AIDS in Greece. For example, in 2021, Positive Voice tested Greece’s former Prime Minister George Papandreou for AIDS in central Athens in a symbolic effort to reduce stigma and misconceptions surrounding the virus. In 2022, Positive Voice also, with Gilead Sciences and the Hellenic Society for the Study & Treatment of AIDS, held free HIV testing in Monastiraki Square, promoting the slogan, “If you want to learn, you put your finger.” The same year, Positive Voice met with current Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to discuss legislative action that the government is taking to prohibit workplace discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS in Greece.
While Greece has already seen new HIV diagnoses drop from 601 in 2020 to 402 in 2021, there is still room for progress. With continued efforts to target PrEP interventions at those most in need, provide support for the country’s most vulnerable and at-risk and eradicate stigma, Greece could improve the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS in the present and pave the way for a brighter, HIV/AIDS-free future.
– Ben Hofmann