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All the talk might be of COVID, but AIDS is hitting Eastern Europe hard




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According to UNAIDS, 140,000 HIV infections were recorded in Eastern Euro and Central Asia in 2020, down from 170,000 in 2019. Far from indicating a change in trend, this decline reflects a "brutal" drop in detection, the UN agency stated, writes Cristian Gherasim, Bucharest correspondent.

For example, Romania, a country of more than 19 million people with around 17,000 HIV-positive patients, saw a one-third drop in tests last year.

So did neighboring Bulgaria. "The regional health centers have been overtaken by the detection of covid-19 and have hardly done any anti-HIV tests," laments Alexander Milanov of the Bulgarian National Patients' Organization.

"The pandemic has added additional challenges to the stigma of HIV-positive people in many countries," said Davron Mukhamadiev, the European coordinator of the Red Cross (IFRC).

Due to the closure of hospitals for patients other than those with covid-19 and travel restrictions, access to screening and diagnostic services has been restricted.

The pandemic has also complicated patients' access to medicines, Mukhamadiev points out.

All eyes are on Covid-19, and the fight against HIV is slowing down and AIDS is continuing to do damage in Eastern Europe.


Even before the current health crisis, the former communist bloc was among the most affected regions. In 2019, 76% of AIDS cases diagnosed on the old continent were registered in its eastern part, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Approximately 11,000 children born in the 1980s, in the pronatalist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, were contaminated by using unsterilized syringes in hospitals or orphanages. AIDS was then considered in the communist world as an evil that affected only the "depraved West".

Romania NGOs trying to make the lives of HIV-positive patients more bearable as the state does less and less say that there have been hard times before but never like this one.

Alina Dumitriu, the director of the NGO Sens Positiv, experienced several periods of drug shortages, but she believed that those times were over, but apparently it has only got worse. The new therapies prolong life, but "these patients always live with a visceral fear, not knowing if they will have medication tomorrow", Dumitriu expressed her disbelief that things will improve anytime soon.

Romania's health care, consistently ranked as the EU's worst according to the Euro Health Consumer Index, finds itself unable to cope with the spread of the virus. Romania spends less on its medical system than any other EU country, as Eurostat ranks it last with only €400 healthcare expenditure per inhabitant, way behind top performers such as Luxembourg, Sweden and Denmark, each with over €5,000 health expenditure per inhabitant each year.

Things have only gotten worse during the pandemic as even the small resources poured into Romania’s ailing healthcare system went all into fighting COVID. To put even more pressure on the system, Romania has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe. The health-care system is overwhelmed, with almost no ICU beds left, and long waiting times for Covid-testing and results. Romania's medical care has been consistently ranked EU's worst and most under-financed.

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