This just in: Totally unbelievable thing is absolutely untrue

A World Health Organization report mistakenly described an epidemic of deliberate HIV infection by Greeks seeking government benefits. A lot of the press believed this.

Kostas Tsironis
In Greece, things are bad. But they're not that bad.

Buried in a World Health Organization (WHO) report on healthcare in Europe released last month is an astonishing claim: In a sidebar on Greece on page 112, the WHO authors wrote:

"HIV rates and heroin use (in Greece) have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 ($950) per month and faster admission on to drug-substitution programmes." 

As a picture of economic despair, what could be more poignant or horrifying than legions of Greeks infecting themselves with an incurable disease that is frequently deadly?

Press outlets quickly ran with the story. The past day has brought dozens of headlines: "Greeks self-inject HIV to claim benefits," wrote Al Jazeera. "Half of HIV infections in Greece are self-inflicted," said Fox News. "Price of fiscal austerity: Greek's self-inject HIV to claim €700 in benefits," was the headline in the Kremlin-controlled news outlet Voice of Russia.

A properly skeptical take on this claim, however, might have been more along the lines of, "Really?... No, I'm serious. Show me the evidence."

It turns out, as the WHO acknowledges today, there is no evidence – because the statement isn't true. "This statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the report," the WHO writes.

Where did this tale come from? It started with a note published in The Lancet (a UK-based medical journal) in October 2011. "Health effects of financial crisis: omens of a Greek tragedy" was a review of recent developments in health care and infection in Greece. The authors wrote (emphasis mine):

A significant increase in HIV infections occurred in late 2010. The latest data suggest that new infections will rise by 52% in 2011 compared with 2010 (922 new cases versus 605), with half of the currently observed increases attributable to infections among intravenous drug users.19 Data for the first 7 months of 2011 show more than a 10-fold rise in new infections in these drug users compared with the same period in 2010.20 The prevalence of heroin use reportedly rose by 20% in 2009, from 20 200 to 24 100, according to estimates from the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs.

Budget cuts in 2009 and 2010 have resulted in the loss of a third of the country's street-work programmes;21 one survey of 275 drug users in Athens in October, 2010, found that 85% were not on a drug-rehabilitation programme.21 Many new HIV infections are also linked to an increase in prostitution (and associated unsafe sex).22 An authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes.22 These programmes offer access to synthetic opioids and can have waiting lists of 3 years or more in urban areas.

At the end of the day, what we have are "accounts" of a "few individuals" in an "authoritative report" becoming a claim hundreds of people are deliberately infecting themselves. Following the footnote bread-crumbs rather than blindly trusting the WHO when it made an absurd on its face claim would have shown it wasn't true.

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