WHO retracts HIV self-injection claim

Global health authority issues apology for erroneous case study about health implications of Greek financial crisis.

Severe austerity measures in Greece have failed to revive the economy, sparking protests [AFP]

The World Health Organisation has retracted its claim that a number of Greeks were injecting themselves with HIV to get about $950 in monthly health benefits.

WHO spokesman Glenn Thomas on Tuesday told Al Jazeera that the global health authority had no evidence to support a statement published in its recent report that about half of new infections in Greece were self-inflicted to claim the money.

Instead, Thomas said the report should have said that half of new infections were among intravenous drug users, and that there was “anecdotal evidence” that some new infections were self-inflicted to claim benefits, although the WHO has no evidence to support those anecdotes.

“The statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the document, for which WHO apologises,” the organisation said in a statement.

“There may be anecdotal evidence [of self-inflicted HIV infections], but no evidence as such,” Thomas added.

The WHO report, titled Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region, included a case study focusing on the Greek financial crisis.

“HIV rates and heroin use have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 per month and faster admission on to drug-substitution programmes,” the report noted.

According to the WHO’s retraction, the statement should have read: “Half of the new HIV cases are self-injecting and out of them few are deliberately inflicting the virus.”

The WHO report relied in part on an article in the medical journal Lancet, which referenced “accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes.”

The Lancet report, in turn, cited a study by the “Ad hoc expert group of the Greek focal point on the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in 2011,” which described a “well-founded suspicion that some problem users are intentionally infected with HIV, because of the benefit they are entitled to (approximately €1,400 every two months), and also because they are granted ‘exceptional admission’ to the Substitution Programme.”

There is no evidence in the articles of any specific cases in which this has occurred.

In its apology statement, the WHO noted that Greece reported a 52 percent increase in HIV infections in 2011 over the previous year, largely among intravenous drug users.

“The reasons for this increase remain multifaceted and WHO welcomes efforts of the ad hoc working group and other entities to fully understand the underlying reasons and recommend appropriate measures to extend the benefits of the comprehensive package of interventions for harm reduction to all people who inject drugs,” the WHO’s clarification noted.

Source: Al Jazeera