In European countries, increases in rates of reported HIV
infections among people who inject drugs in recent years have been associated
with the economic downturn and income inequality, Georgios Nikolopoulos of the
University of Athens told the 20th International AIDS Conference
(AIDS 2014) in Melbourne today.
In most European countries, HIV infection rates in people who inject drugs have been stable or have declined over the past decade. However,
Greece and Romania experienced an almost 20-fold increase in new diagnoses between 2010 and 2012. It has been suggested, but not proven, that
these outbreaks were caused by the economic crisis that began in 2007, with cuts to harm reduction services possibly being a crucial factor.
There is limited quantitative evidence on the associations
between economic problems and HIV infections, especially in a pan-European
context. The researchers therefore examined data from 30 different European
countries, collecting national statistics from a ten-year period (2003-2012)
- economic indicators (GDP per capita, GDP growth, income
inequality, poverty, unemployment, etc.),
- services and policies (government expenditure on health and
social programmes, numbers receiving opioid substitution therapy, availability
of needle and syringe programmes, etc.), and
- drug use (number of people who inject drugs, number using
Dr Nikolopoulos and colleagues examined the associations of
these factors with periods of time in which specific countries had experienced
significant increases in the HIV diagnosis rate among people who inject drugs. As
well as the dramatic outbreaks in Greece and Romania, a number of other
countries had experienced smaller rises and spikes in infection during the ten-year period.
He used “lagged values” – in other words, considering the
possibility that economic problems or a cut in harm reduction services would
only have an impact on HIV diagnoses one, two or three years later. The figures
below are based on an assumption of a two-year lag between economic effects and
health impact, but similar results were produced if a one- or two-year lag were
Even in the first (univariable) analysis, the only factors significantly
associated with increases in HIV infections were economic: the GDP growth rate,
poverty and three separate measures of income inequality (S80/S20,
Gini-coefficient and the Public Wealth Index).
And in multivariable analysis, after adjusting for
confounding factors, only two factors were significantly associated with an
increase in diagnoses. Firstly, countries with continued growth in GDP were less likely to have rises in HIV
diagnoses (odds ratio 0.65, 95% confidence interval 0.48-0.86). Secondly, countries with a higher
Gini-coeffecient (income inequality) were more likely to have more diagnoses
(odds ratio 1.49, 95% CI: 1.00-2.22).
simply, countries in economic recession or with greater income inequality were
more likely to have jumps in HIV infections in people who inject drugs.
the data, Georgios Nikolopoulos noted numerous other examples of
economic crises, conflicts and other social upheavals having an impact on
health. Several studies have found evidence
of worse infectious disease outcomes during recession, often as a result of
higher rates of infectious contact in poor living circumstances, worse access
to therapy, or poor retention in care. When
the Soviet Union broke up, the subsequent economic crisis and collapse of
existing social structures was associated with massive increases in HIV and TB
infections, alongside other health problems. Globally, countries
with worse income inequality have higher prevalence of HIV.
commented that the mechanisms through which economic problems lead to infections
remain unclear, but it is unlikely to be entirely due to less provision of harm
reduction services – in many settings, very few services were
available even before the recession.
concluded that governments should be aware that they could help avert HIV
epidemics in people who inject drugs through economic policies that assure
economic growth and a more equal distribution of a country's wealth.