Health Agencies Warn Of Undiagnosed HIV Cases In Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Published by RFE/RL, 27 November 2020

The EU’s disease-control agency and the World Health Organization (WHO) are calling for more HIV testing as many infected people are diagnosed too late, especially in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Late diagnosis of the virus that causes AIDS contributes to ongoing HIV transmission, often for several years, and prevents infected people from receiving life-saving treatment.

A report published on November 26 by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and WHO showed that in 2019 more than 136,000 people were newly diagnosed in the WHO European region, which comprises 53 countries.

Some 80 percent of the new diagnoses were in WHO’s eastern region, which includes Eastern Europe, Russia, and several countries in Central Asia.

In a worrying trend, about half of diagnoses happened late in the infection when the immune system has already started to fail.

“This is a sign that testing strategies in the region are not working properly to diagnose HIV early,” the health agencies said in a joint statement.

In the region covered by the ECDC — which includes the EU plus Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Norway — the number of cases has declined by 9 percent in the past decade and the number of undiagnosed cases has been falling.

But newly diagnosed cases across the whole region, including Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, have increased by 19 percent over the last decade, the report said, and the number of people living in the region with undiagnosed HIV is increasing.

While it is not known how COVID-19 is impacting HIV testing, WHO Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge warned that the pandemic must not “rob us of an AIDS-free future that is within our grasp.”

“I remember when a diagnosis of HIV seemed like a death sentence. Now, with proper treatment, people with HIV can live without fear of AIDS,” he said.

ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said COVID-19 should not lead countries to ignore other health issues like HIV/AIDS.

“Earlier diagnosis of HIV is an urgent priority,” she said.

According to UNAIDS, 38 million people around the world were living with HIV in 2019, and 26 million of them were receiving life-saving antiretroviral therapy.

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