An HIV Epidemic Looms as Harm Reduction Budgets are Affected by the Financial Crisis

A video posted by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has highlighted the danger posed by post-crisis budget pressures to vital drug services. Needle exchange centres in Budapest warn that supplies of needles are rapidly running out and call for urgent action to prevent an HIV crisis. Cuts in government funding have already forced harm reduction services in Budapest to reduce opening hours and limit the amount of needles they give out. Service providers point out their success in stopping the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C in Budapest, and maintain that cutting funds and allowing these diseases to spread will prove much more expensive.

A similar pattern is being reflected across crisis-affected southern Europe. After the cancellation of a needle exchange program in Athens in 2011, cases of HIV among intravenous drug users have increased by 1450% over the last year. The government carrying out these cuts has attempted to blame the increase on prostitution. Days before this year’s election police posted names and photographs of sex-workers who had tested positive for HIV.

Even Portugal, where harm reduction forms an important part of the country’s progressive drug policy, may face damaging cuts to services. The National Harm Reduction Network found that 7 out of the 30 harm reduction projects it contacted were having their public funding cancelled. Systemic delays to funding affected a further 13 organisations. Some service providers are now facing bankruptcy, and it is clear that the level of services across the country has suffered.

The position of healthcare spending in the financial crisis was debated at the 15th European Health Forum (EHFG) in Gastein last week. Delegates agreed that “the overall goal of health care investments is to protect the most vulnerable people in a society”. The drastic increase in HIV infections in Greece has demonstrated the value of maintaining such investments.