Ignorance abets AIDS

Greek society continues to be largely ignorant of the fact that the spread of the HIV virus that causes AIDS has not only not diminished but, according to data for 2003 and initial indications for 2004, is on the increase. Despite the fact that we have known for years about the virus and the way it is spread, there is a sector of society that still has its head buried in the sand and lives in fear and ignorance, holding on to prejudices and behaving recklessly. In 2003, 431 people were registered with the Center for the Control of Infectious Diseases (KEEL) as being HIV positive. Of these, 104 are women. The trend has been for a slight increase, despite a reduction after 2000. There were 428 new cases in 2001 and 402 in 2002, but in 2004 no reduction is expected. HIV continues to be regarded with fear despite the progress in treatments since 1996 with anti-retroviral drugs that have radically improved the quality of life for those who are HIV positive, reduced the mortality rate and improved the treatment of infections. However, it should not be forgotten that the virus cannot be eradicated from the body and that those who are HIV positive have to be on medication for the rest of their lives. They also need to take a responsible attitude to their own selves and to those around them. Although the virus affects society as a whole, and although certain private organizations (such as Act Up) do their best to inform the public, the state appears to have relaxed its information campaign to the point where the disease is only in the news every Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. Yet in Greece, HIV positive individuals receive full and free medical attention at public hospitals where the infectious diseases units are truly providing a public service. Doctors no longer talk about high-risk groups but high-risk behavior, a major issue the public knows little about, as a rule. The virus affects all sexually active people, men and women, so AIDS should be included among the other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis or hepatitis B and C, diseases that most people have forgotten about. Greek society’s prudery does not leave much margin for a realistic approach to today’s reality, where frequent changes in sexual partners without taking protective measures are typical of a considerable sector of the general population throughout the West, fueled in recent years by opportunities for casual contacts provided by the Internet. The state has done very little to inform the public about a problem that is even more acute for HIV positive individuals living far from urban centers where there is a degree of anonymity. The media remember HIV/AIDS once or twice a year, and the image presented to the public is usually that the virus affects population groups whose behavior diverges from what is generally accepted as «normal.» Then there is the perception that HIV positives are paying for a way of life that middle-class society does not approve of. While one would expect the Health Ministry to do something to fight ignorance and to liberate people from the fears that are born of a lack of information, it has actually been hesitant, perpetuating a vicious cycle that leads to the emergence of more and more cases every year, despite the huge funds spent on anti-retroviral treatment, although funds for the infectious diseases units are lower than those for other units. Although one would expect young people to be using condoms in every single sexual encounter, very few actually use them at all. In Greece, even in the larger towns, sexual behavior is frequently irresponsible, and many people who suspect or fear that they may have been infected do not get tested but continue to have unprotected sex. Confidential HIV testing is free at all public hospitals. There needs to be yet another campaign to emphasize the importance of being tested. The sooner one knows, the better.