VIENNA Huge disparities between Western and Eastern Europe in tackling the AIDS virus mean the HIV crisis in the region is far from over, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday.
The U.N. health body said the rapidly rising rates of new HIV infections in countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia and Latvia meant the region as a whole now had world's the fastest growing epidemic.
"While HIV epidemics in Western Europe are, with some exceptions, generally stabilizing, in many countries in Eastern Europe, they rage out of control," Andrew Ball of the WHO's HIV/AIDS department told an international AIDS conference in Vienna.
"The rate of increase of new HIV infections in Europe is now the highest in the world."
Most of the increase is due to the spread of the virus among injecting drug users in places such as Russia and Ukraine, where addicts are often stigmatized and have limited access to HIV treatment or information.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS is spread in blood, breast milk and through sex and drug users can spread it by sharing used needles.
In the WHO's European region, which covers around 50 countries in Eastern and Western Europe, as well Central Asia, there were more than 1.2 million HIV cases by the end 2008, with more than 100,000 new infections in that year.
"The AIDS crisis in Europe is not over," said Martin Donoghoe, the WHO's program manager for HIV/AIDS in the region.
He said that while the annual number of new HIV cases was relatively stable at about 20,000 in Western Europe, rates were volatile and increasing in the east, where there were 80,000 new cases in 2008.
The United Nations children's fund UNICEF said Monday that an "underground HIV epidemic" in Eastern Europe and Central Asia was being fueled by drug use, risky sex and severe social stigma that stopped people asking for help.
Donoghoe said a specific focus was needed on injecting drug users, a group which in some areas accounts for 50 percent of all those living with HIV. In a large number of countries in the region, drug users are stigmatized and excluded from health and social services, including HIV treatment, the WHO said.
The number of people in Europe who get AIDS drugs has doubled from 2003 to 500,000 in 2008. But Donoghoe said the vast majority of those new patients were in the west. In Eastern Europe, only around 23 percent of people who need HIV/AIDS medicines can actually get them.
Donoghoe said breaking and ultimately halting the fast growth of HIV in Europe would require "concerted action" by all governments and health organizations. "HIV in Europe depends on access to services in the east," he said.