LISBON Austerity measures brought in to tackle Europe's economic crisis may cause a rise in drug-related HIV infections as stretched health services struggle to cope, the EU's narcotics agency said on Tuesday.
Greece, which is facing huge cutbacks, reported a large outbreak of HIV infections among drug users in July, the Lisbon-based agency said in its yearly report.
New infections were also reported in Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania, it added.
"Across Europe drug services are under pressure, and HIV prevention is not always given the policy priority it once had," said Wolfgang Gotz, director of the agency, known by its acronym EMCDDA.
"In some (EU) member states, we are witnessing an exceptional set of circumstances that create a perfect storm for causing the rapid spread of drug-related HIV infections within vulnerable communities."
Gotz said Europe had made strong progress in recent years to prevent the spread of HIV among drug users, but there was a risk that could be reversed.
Use of cocaine may have peaked in Europe as cash-strapped users struggled to pay for their habit, the report added.
"The financial burden associated with regular cocaine use may make it a less attractive option in countries where austerity is now the order of the day," said Gotz.
An estimated 4 million Europeans used the drug last year, making it the region's most popular illegal stimulant.
The volume of cocaine seizures and the purity of the drug had fallen sharply in recent years from a peak in 2006, the agency said.
(Reporting By Axel Bugge; Editing by Andrew Heavens)