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Last Updated: Friday, 17 September, 2004, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Europe unites for new Aids battle
Intravenous drug use
HIV/Aids threatens to overwhelm some countries' health systems
European health ministers and experts have gathered to discuss how to combat a resurgent HIV/Aids epidemic in the enlarged European Union.

The conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, heard calls for European leaders to do more to fight Aids, described by one as "the silent plague of our times".

A recent EU report says infection rates in Russia and some east European states are now among the highest in the world.

The Vilnius meeting aims to create a coordinated European approach.

It is the first major Aids conference since May when 10 nations, mostly east and central European, joined the EU.

Opening the conference, European Commissioner Pavel Telicka warned the "silent plague" knew "no boundaries".

Some new EU members like the Baltic nations Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have seen new HIV infections rise dramatically in recent years, according to the European Commission's report.

If no action is taken, we will be faced with a larger Aids epidemic that risks crippling the region's social and economic development and undermining national security
Lars O Kallings
UN special envoy for Aids in eastern Europe

That is largely due to a sharp increase in the number of intravenous drug users and a resurgence in unprotected sex.

In eastern Europe, 80% of those infected with HIV are under 25 - but it is not just a problem for the so-called "new Europe". The number of new cases in western Europe has doubled in the last decade.

With better and more widely available Aids treatment, Europe has "let itself be lulled into a false sense of security," Mr Telicka said.

The EU has set aside 1.2bn euros ($1.5bn) to tackle Aids over the next two years but what Europe is really lacking, speaker after speaker said, was political leadership.

Ukraine in crisis

The EU's new eastern neighbours, like Ukraine and Belarus, have the fastest growth of Aids anywhere in the world.

The BBC's Helen Fawkes in Kiev says it is feared there will be an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainians with HIV by the end of the decade.

Ukraine has one of the highest rates of increase in the former Soviet Union.

It is one of the poorest countries in Europe and health services have struggled to cope following the collapse of the USSR. It has also been affected by high levels of intravenous drug-taking.

The United Nations agency, UNAIDS, claims that stigma, ignorance and political indifference about Aids are deeply entrenched in Ukraine and this has caused the disease to increase.

All parties at the Vilnius conference are expected to sign a declaration which will aim to improve Aids coordination and prevention efforts across the continent.





SEE ALSO:
Eastern Europe's HIV 'time-bomb'
21 Mar 03  |  Health


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