A STEEP rise in HIV infections across Cyprus is an indication of the state’s failure to tackle the problem, Accept LGBT head Costas Gavrielides said on Tuesday.
Commenting on figures released which showed 66 new HIV infections were recorded in Cyprus between January and October last year, showing an upward trend in the last two years, Gavrielides said the infection “is becoming locally self-sustained and expanding within the local community” particularly between homosexual men.
Health authorities saw 80 cases reported in 2015 versus 41 in 2010.
According to figures published by the Cyprus News Agency, the highest incidence was seen in gay men between the ages of 20 and 39. Fifty-four cases were reported in 2011, 58, in 2012, 54, in 2013, and 55 in 2014.
This is due “to the lack of targeted and comprehensive HIV programmes,” Gavrielides told the Cyprus Mail.
Other factors could be the increased use of online apps that help Cypriot men search for sexual partners based on location “who find comfort in the relative anonymity these provide,” as well as “increased cross-border mobility, to and from the island, with the use of low-cost flights and online rental sites.”
Gavrielides ruled out that the upwards trend could be attributed to an increase in the number of people getting tested because although those numbers had slightly increased in recent years “this increase is not reflected at the same percentage level increase to the new HIV cases,” he said.
In 1986 there were 11 infections registered in Cyprus, mostly concerning foreign nationals; in 2015 some 80 cases mostly concerned Cypriots.
Between January and October last year, 66 cases were recorded with 60 being residents of Cyprus, including three in the north.
Out of the 57 residents of the island, 33 were Cypriots – two women – and 24 were foreign nationals – five women.
Between 1986 and 2015, Cyprus recorded 983 cases with the majority being Cypriots – 548, or 55.7 per cent. The majority, 717, were men.
The manner of infection was mainly sexual contact, 93.4 per cent, broken down into 51.6 per cent heterosexual and 41.8 per cent homosexual.
The main way of transmission in men was sexual contact with other men – 57.3 per cent – and women – 36.1 per cent. Women contracted the virus mostly through heterosexual intercourse, 93.2 per cent.
Among the 541 Cypriot carriers 482 were men, a ratio of 8:1.
The majority of cases, or 65 per cent, affected the age group 20-39. Thirty-one per cent of the cases were among the ages of 40 and 60 plus. Four per cent concerned ages up to 19.
A 2014 report by the European centre for disease prevention and control (ECDC) outlined that there was a stigma in Cyprus against people living with HIV, there were no sexual health information activities and the public sector was itself a barrier to HIV testing – primarily due to lack of anonymity and confidentiality.
Now three years later, barely anything has changed, Gavrielides said.
Although Cyprus, along with Malta, had actually requested the ECDC reviewed the domestic sphere surrounding HIV, recommendations “were largely ignored and no political actions were made to cover those.”
In fact, in March, parliament had voted in favour of scrapping a fund surrounding AIDS concerns in Cyprus, he added.
One of the top suggestions the ECDC had made was to establish effective HIV responses aimed at men that have sex with men in Cyprus. A task force should be created that would fall under the National AIDS committee, it recommended.
Cyprus does not have a national strategy regarding HIV however, Gavrielides said and facilities offering testing leave much to be desired.
A dedicated HIV clinic in Larnaca lets carriers down in the way it operates and “in Nicosia, anonymous HIV testing takes place in outdated premises.”
The ECDC report outlined “significant barriers to accessing HIV testing in the public sector,” mainly surrounding fears over anonymity and confidentiality as well as inconvenient opening times.
“One respondent reported that he had been told he could not have a repeat HIV test six months after his previous test on the basis that he should only have one HIV test per year,” the report said.
Privacy guidelines are not adhered to and educational leaflets available are dated from the 90’s, Gavrielides said.
“We need to have at least one modern STD clinic in each city, and mobile testing should be carried out around Cyprus. These should test visitors anonymously not only for HIV, but also for other STD’s such as hepatitis, syphilis, chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus and others.”
The health services have a long road to cover and not much progress is being done, he added.
According to the ECDC report, no specific HIV programs were targeted towards sex workers or migrants. It said the ombdusman had raised concerns of EU law breaches because foreign nationals had been threatened with deportation on the grounds of being HIV positive.