/ 14 June 2012

Greek public health policies ‘punish those most at risk’

Cases of HIV/Aids in Athens had gone up 1450% last year compared with figures for the year before.
Cases of HIV/Aids in Athens had gone up 1450% last year compared with figures for the year before.

A strategy that ignores the root causes of disease outbreaks and penalises those most at risk.

Reveka Papadopoulou, the general director of the medical charity’s Greek branch, said cases of HIV/Aids in the city centre had gone up 1450% last year compared with figures for the year before.

Médecins Sans Frontières attributed the rise largely to the suspension of a needle-exchange programme for the capital’s intravenous drug users.

The reduction of public schemes designed to help the most vulnerable on the capital’s streets had been compounded, Papadopoulou said, by a crackdown on illegal immigrants and other groups regarded by the authorities as a threat to public health.

“First of all, that is against any medical ethics,” she said. “Second, it is dangerous for public health. You cannot protect public health by penalising, by using this policing approach on the ones that you consider possible transmitters of the disease.”

Sanitary police
Referring to the use of a “sanitary police”, Papadopoulou said: “This has nothing to do with a lack of resources. It is a misconception. It is a wrong approach. It is a dangerous approach.”

In March, the Greek government launched a crackdown on illegal immigrants in Athens, thousands of whom live in unsanitary conditions in the heart of the city. And in April, the government sparked criticism from Amnesty International and others when it announced plans to hold illegal immigrants considered a risk to public health in indefinite detention for compulsory health checks and treatment for HIV/Aids and contagious diseases.

In May, just days before the last election, police detained a group of HIV-positive women for allegedly working as prostitutes and trying to inflict serious harm on clients. Twelve of the women, from Greece, Eastern Europe and Russia, had their photographs and identities released to the media. The affair outraged human-rights groups. Papadopoulou said the mentality of the state, along with a lack of capacity and resources, meant the dramatically deteriorating condition of the Greek healthcare system could well continue, even after Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

“We are witnessing a system, a state, which is paralysed because of the elections. But even after the elections, unfortunately, I am afraid that we will see the situation deteriorating,” she said, criticising the erection of barriers to basic care such as those created by a shortage of medicine, a charge of €5 for each hospital visit and an overall reduction in public hospital budgets.

Papadopoulou said the lack of treatment available to illegal immigrants meant there was a large population on the street “without treatment, without services and of course they continue to transmit”.

“This is the schizophrenic attitude of the authorities of yesterday and today: at the end of the day, accusing the victims of being the perpetrators.” — © Guardian News & Media 2012