Warning to East Europe on Aids

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CENTRAL and Eastern Europe is standing on the brink of an Aids epidemic that could reach proportions currently being witnessed in South and South-east Asia, according to a forecast by the World Heath Organisation.

WHO warned yesterday that urgent action should be taken now to prevent the disease taking hold in a region in which, under Communism, it was virtually unknown.

At a press conference in Berlin, Michael Merson, the director of WHO's Global Programme on Aids, said that over the past four years the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had become perfect breeding grounds for the spread of the HIV virus. Nearly all of them had witnessed alarming increases in prostitution and drug usage: two of the main means of transmitting the disease, he said. These factors, coupled with greater freedom to travel and a liberalisation of previously rather rigid social mores, were also contributing to the overall risk, he warned.

'Unless a concerted effort is made to prevent HIV infections now, Central and Eastern Europe could find itself with an epidemic on its hands within 10 years,' he said.

In comparison to Western Europe, the number of registered Aids cases in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is still very low: 3,026 against 84,476. But, given that there is frequently a gap of some 10 years between becoming infected with the virus and having the full-blown disease, WHO insists there is no cause for complacency. Of the estimated 200 new infections in Europe a day, the organisation believes the majority are in the East.

At a recent conference of health and finance ministers from Central and Eastern Europe, in Riga, WHO called for a dollars 550m ( pounds 362m), three-year programme to combat the spread of Aids in the region, with the bulk of the money being spent on ensuring a plentiful supply of good quality condoms and promoting greater awareness of the way in which the disease is transmitted.

In addition to preventive measures, the programme, to be funded by governments of the countries concerned and international organisations, also plans to focus on improved health care for those infected and a de-stigmatisation of Aids.