The London Eye turns (RED) on World AIDS Day to support an AIDS Free Generation by 2015.
Credit: Clive Brunskill

LONDON, UK — Londoners painted the town red (in ribbons) on World AIDS day this year.

On Old Compton Street, in the heart of London's gay community, a mobile clinic claimed a World Record by carrying out HIV tests on 745 people on Dec. 1.

Outside of London, however, AIDS activists and health workers are concerned that Europeans are becoming blase about AIDS.

"It's unfortunately a reality that HIV/AIDS is not such a cool and sexy issue any more," says Oleksandr Matynenko, training and communication coordinator of the European AIDS Treatment Group, based in Brussels, Belgium.

"I was negatively surprised walking around Brussels how few people, compared to other years, were wearing the [red] ribbon ... it's become just another issue."

Today, anybody contracting HIV can expect to live as long as somebody without the virus, if they start the proper treatment on time, the World Health Organization says.

That success means many in Europe are less frightened of a disease once viewed as a certain death sentence. UN figures show that while the rate of new HIV infections has fallen in much of the world in recent years, Eastern Europe is bucking the global trend.  

While HIV/AIDs diagnosis rates have fallen to 5.7 per 100,000 people across the European Union as a whole, the same cannot be said for countries in Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, the rate has risen to 38 per 100,000 people in 2011, while in Russia the latest figures showed 44.1 per 100,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2010 - almost eight-times the EU rate at the time.

"Eastern Europe and Central Asia are the regions where the numbers have been increasing and they are increasing at a rather tremendous rate," said Matynenko. "In the Ukraine and in Russia, 80 percent of all new infections are with people who are under-30. That is very disturbing and alarming."

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Factors blamed for the increase in HIV infection rates include rising levels of drug use following the flow of heroin into the region from Afghanistan; prostitution linked to poverty, drugs and a thriving sex tourism industry; poor levels of awareness, treatment and testing; and discrimination and stigmatization that discourages people with HIV and AIDS from coming forward for treatment.

Making matters worse, less than a quarter of the approximate 300,000 Ukrainians currently living with HIV are thought to be receiving adequate treatment.

Matynenko, who is Ukrainian and travels regularly to region as part of his organization's work to promote effective AIDS treatment, says there is a particular problem with mother-to-child infection in the former-Soviet countries.

"Western Europe can be proud to report that there's virtually no examples of this vertical transmission from mother to child," he said in an interview. "In the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, doctors who should be knowledgeable about mother-to-child transmission and should be advising mothers what to do, would simply say: 'do an abortion, why would you want to have a child that could be HIV positive?' It's absolutely insane given that we are so advanced in the world in the prevention of HIV transmission from mother to child."

However, with the economic crisis affecting much of Western Europe, there is concern that declining health spending and cuts to research budgets could hurt AIDS treatment across the continent, even in nations that are leading the way in HIV/AIDs prevention and care like the United Kingdom.

Of the 745 people who were tested on Old Compton Street on Dec. 1, seven tested positve for HIV. And while this figure may be appear to be a promising one relative to Eastern European nations, it also serves as a reminder that even in the most health conscious regions, the fight against HIV/AIDS is not over.


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