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Aids experts call for more tests

By Paul Kirby
EU reporter, BBC News

EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou (courtesy European Commission)
Markos Kyprianou says HIV/Aids is the forgotten disease

More than 300 European health experts are calling for earlier HIV testing to tackle increasing infection rates.

They are attending a conference in Brussels, described as the first time patients, policy-makers and physicians have gathered in the same room.

One proposal being considered is for wider testing for people considered to be low-risk.

There were 86,912 new infections reported in the World Health Organization's European region in 2006.

'Remember Me'

Delegates at the conference agreed that the impact of late HIV diagnosis on individuals and healthcare was an urgent problem.

In his opening speech, EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said "we need to act".

He said attention on the issue had slipped from the top of the political agenda because of a new generation that had not been aware of high-profile Aids campaigns in the 1980s.

"We allowed it to become the forgotten disease," he said. "That's why, for the European Commission, the basic motto, the basic phrase for this disease is 'Remember Me'."

Lives wasted

One of the co-chairs of the conference, Professor Jens Lundgren, said that around half of patients who contracted HIV entered treatment too late and the situation had not changed in the past decade.

There's a reluctance to go out and do widespread testing
Professor Jens Lundgren
Director, Copenhagen HIV Programme

"Many lives are being wasted because we, as health professionals, are unable to get people into care early enough to have saved them," he said. He is the director of the Copenhagen HIV Programme.

Prof Lundgren said that the problem of late diagnosis was becoming more and more significant across Europe. He said around 30-40% of patients had already developed Aids by the time they entered the health system and no country had been able to deal with the disease effectively.

"All Western European countries have a plan for cervical cancer or breast cancer but there's a reluctance to go out and do widespread testing of populations (for HIV)," he said.

Doctors' responsibility

Prof Lundgren said that the conference was calling for testing of at-risk groups including homosexuals and drug-users every five years. But, he said, there had to be other initiatives for categories classed as lower risk.

Where doctors found cases of illness linked to HIV, such as tuberculosis or, less obviously, skin and oral disease, they should recommend testing.

"The thinking is that much of the testing is voluntary and we believe the provider of care should be more active," he said.

One potential obstacle could be funding, although the organisers are adamant that treatment is far cheaper if patients are identified before the onset of Aids.

While governments in Western Europe are likely to welcome the proposals, the conference expects the reception in Eastern Europe to be lukewarm.


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