Romanian HIV/Aids crisis 'will engulf Europe'

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The Independent Online

An explosion in new HIV and Aids cases on the fringes of the European Union could engulf Europe in an Aids crisis as big as Africa's, a leading aid organisation has warned.

A UN report out this week will show that Eastern Europe now has the fastest rate of growth in Aids in the world. Previous estimates had suggested 230,000 people in the region were newly infected in 2003, but revised UN Aids figures put the number more than 50 per cent higher, at 360,000. As many as 1.9 million people in the region could now be living with the virus.

The increase has been caused by a sharp rise in the number of intravenous drug users in Russia and Ukraine as well as the growing traffic in young prostitutes, most of whom are passing through Romania on their way to Western Europe. Both Russia and Ukraine have experienced a 40 per cent increase in HIV infection in the past two years.

Aid agencies now fear that Romania, which has porous borders with Russia, Ukraine and Moldova, has become the new front line in the fight against Aids in Europe. Dr Chris Pitt, the local director of the World Vision charity, said the current crisis threatened to spill over into the EU - particularly if the country joins, as planned, in 2007.

"This is like a timebomb waiting to go off," Dr Pitt said. "With a bigger Europe and the whole movement of people we are looking at the same problem as in Africa - but for us it will affect the middle classes because they are more mobile."

The majority of new infections in Eastern Europe are through heterosexual sex, with vertical transmission from mother to child also accounting for a rising number. One of the most striking aspects of the epidemic is the age of those infected. More than 80 per cent are under 30, affecting large swathes of the working population. This compares to just 30 per cent in Western Europe and North America.

The crisis in Romania is heightened by the Aids legacy of the former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. His "five children per family" policy of the late 1980s caused an explosion in the birth rate that overwhelmed the country's healthcare system and saw orphanages overflowing with some 300,000 children abandoned by parents who could not afford to look after them.

Romania's practice of giving blood transfusions to malnourished or underweight babies contributed to the rapid spread of the HIV virus. So did the insistence on administering almost all medicines, even vitamins, by injection: some children were injected three times a day without the syringe being changed from one child to the next.

The first case of HIV in a Romanian child appeared in the summer of 1989. By the time of the revolution on Christmas Day that year, there were roughly 8,000 babies with HIV. According to World Vision, some 5,600 of these children are still alive. All are now 15 or 16 and are becoming sexually active, something health experts fear may lead to a further rise in the country's cases of HIV.