Oops: WHO says it was wrong about Greeks giving themselves HIV en masse

November 26, 2013

The World Health Organization has just published a doozy of a correction. In a 188-page report published last month on health issues in European countries, the WHO's European office said something very alarming: large numbers of Greek people were deliberately infecting themselves with HIV to get public benefits worth about $1,000 per month. This was causing HIV rates in Greece to rise "significantly," it warned, with about half of the new cases being self-inflicted.

Except it turns out that this is not true. The WHO explains, in a correction posted to its Web site Tuesday, that the authors of its report based this statement on a study in the medical journal Lancet. But that study found only a small number of anecdotal cases of Greek people infecting themselves with HIV to get benefit pay-outs. That's shocking enough on its own, but as the WHO now acknowledges, there's no evidence that this is a mass trend driving the very real spike in HIV rates.

You can still read the original line, unaltered, on page 112 of the WHO report. Here's the offending sentence, in a section about how the European financial crisis has affected public health in Greece: "HIV rates and heroin use have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 per month and faster admission on to drug-substitution programmes."

Here's today's WHO correction, which is both laudably penitent and, this being the World Health Organization, bureaucratically circuitous in the way that only a massive intergovernmental organization can be:

In September 2013 the WHO Regional Office published a report “Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region” which was prepared by the UCL Institute of Equity, United Kingdom. In this report, reference is made to: “HIV rates and heroin use have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 per month and faster admission on to drug substitution programmes.”

WHO wishes to point out that this statement is the consequence of an error in the editing phase of the document. The original source for the statement is a correspondence published in the Lancet by Alexander Kentikelenis and colleagues in September 2011. In this article, Kentikelenis mentions “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,” based on the report of the “Ad hoc expert group of the Greek focal point on the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in 2011” (Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drug, 2011).

WHO recognizes that there is no evidence suggesting that “deliberate self-infection with HIV” goes beyond few, anecdotal cases. At the same time WHO recognizes that Greece has reported an significant, 52% increase of new HIV infection in 2011 compared to the 2010, largely driven by infections among people who inject drugs in recent years. The reasons for this increase remain multifaceted and WHO welcomes efforts to of the ad hoc working group and other entities to fully understand the underlying reasons and recommend appropriate measures to extend the benefits of the comprehensive package of interventions for harm reduction to all people who inject drugs.

The lesson here: check your sources and follow the footnotes.

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Max Fisher | November 26, 2013