RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The International AIDS Conference wraps up today in Washington, D.C. The week was packed with panels and high-profile guests discussing the global pandemic and how to combat it. One country, seeing a shift in HIV infection rates is Greece. It still has one of the lowest rates in Europe, but the country has seen a sharp rise recently, and it appears to be an alarming consequence of the financial crisis.
Budget cuts to health and social services seem to be driving the dramatic increase, especially among addicts who inject drugs. Reporter Joanna Kakissis has our story from Athens.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: About 20 people are gathering in an outpatient center for drug users. One of the recovering addicts is making lunch wearing a surgical mask and gloves. The center's director, Panagiotis Saivanides, explains why.
PANAGIOTIS SAIVANIDES: (Speaking foreign language)
KAKISSIS: We assume that everyone here has AIDS or Hepatitis C, he says. So we have to be careful. A 60-year-old recovering heroin addict who gives his name as Yiannis explains how he contracted hepatitis.
YIANNIS: (Through Translator) I caught it because the pharmacies refused to give me clean needles. I tried to by a syringe, but the pharmacist didn't even want to look at me, let alone give me anything.
KAKISSIS: There was a program where injecting drug users could exchange dirty needles for clean ones. But the government canceled this needle exchange program because of budget cuts. Dirty needles are now responsible for a big increase in HIV infections. The country still has one of the lowest HIV rates in Europe. Only about 12,000 people have the virus in a country of 11 million. But the rate has gone up almost 60 percent since 2010, and among injecting drug users, it's increased an astonishing 1500 percent says the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
A 35-year-old recovering heroin user who gives her name as Marilena says she knows HIV-infected injecting drug users who have sex for money.
MARILENA: (Through Translator) I know what they were doing on the streets. I know what kind of people they had sex with, and that they never used condoms.
KAKISSIS: Prostitution is only legal in licensed brothels, but most of the 15,000 prostitutes who work here illegally on the streets and without health checks, says Eleni Kakalou, a doctor who treats HIV patients.
DR. ELENI KAKALOU: And prices for commercial sex work have gone dramatically down. They say they would have sex for five euros. I've even heard 2 euros.
KAKISSIS: This spring ostensibly as a pre-election crackdown on crime, police arrested 17 women with HIV who allegedly worked illegally as prostitutes. The names and photos of some of the women were posted on the police website. Kakalou says Greek authorities received more than 4,000 calls, most from middle-aged men with families saying they had unprotected sex with the women.
KAKALOU: I think that just the fact that people are buying in these conditions commercial sex and they demand the non-use of condom as many of them have families, women, children that are completely unaware, shows the fact that there is a huge gap of knowledge and perception.
KAKISSIS: Other people think they can contract HIV simply by shaking the hand of an HIV-positive person, says a man who gives his name as Marco. He's gay and got the virus 13 years ago through unprotected sex.
Do they think that they can just get it by touching you sometimes?
MARCO: Yes. Scared of the air, of the water, of everything. Scared of touching you.
KAKISSIS: Most people living with HIV are Greece are gay men, though Marco says the gay community is now more careful about using condoms. But Greece needs a strategy as soon as possible to educate more people here about HIV and prevent its spread, especially among injecting drug users, says Apostolos Veizis of Doctors Without Borders in Greece.
DR. APOSTOLOS VEIZIS: All of us saw a situation going out of control. It's something that did not come from one day to another. Authorities, they were seeing the situation, and I think they did not do anything, essentially, responding to the problem.
KAKISSIS: At the very least, the government does plan to restore the needle exchange program. But what else can be done since Greece is broke? Veizis says that the country should consider Uganda, a developing nation which successfully manages the spread and treatment of HIV on a limited budget. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.
MONTAGNE: And to see our complete coverage on this week's International AIDS Conference, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.