How an obscure report from two years ago became a ridiculous claim about Greeks giving themselves AIDS

Desperate, but not that desperate.
Desperate, but not that desperate.
Image: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
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No, hundreds of Greeks aren’t giving themselves HIV to claim government benefits. This claim made for plenty of eye-catching headlines yesterday and today, but it was soon debunked by cursory internet research.

How did we get here? In a web-enabled version of the telephone game, we can trace the origins of the amazing claim that a recent spike in HIV infections in Greece—a one-third to one-half increase in 2011 over 2010—is down to people deliberately infecting themselves in order to collect the less than $1,000 in monthly aid for sufferers of the disease.

In June 2011, a group of public health experts at the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention published a report (pdf) on the probable causes of a surge in HIV infections among intravenous drug users in Greece that year. It includes the following passage:

An additional factor the committee believed worth considering is the well-founded suspicion that some problem users are intentionally infected with HIV, because of the benefit they are entitled to (approximately €1,400 every two months), and also because they are granted “exceptional admission” to the Substitution Programme. It is well-known that the Substitution Programme has a long waiting list and that the waiting time can be over 3-4 years.

This report was then cited in an October 2011 article in the medical journal The Lancet about the effects of Greece’s financial crisis on healthcare in the country:

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. These programmes offer access to synthetic opioids and can have waiting lists of 3 years or more in urban areas.

Both articles suggest that only a small number of people were thought to have deliberately infected themselves. But two years later, in October 2013, the World Health Organization cited The Lancet article in a 188-page report on the health divide between the rich and poor in Europe. A box on page 112 states:

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.

“Half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted” implies that hundreds of people knowingly gave themselves HIV. There were 837 new HIV cases in Greece (pdf, p. 23) in 2011, up from 635 in 2010, a 35% increase, according to a joint report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the WHO. As if to illustrate the difficulty of getting solid data, the Greek health ministry, meanwhile, puts the figure at 954 new cases in 2011 (pdf, p. 11), up from 607 in 2010, a 57% increase.

New Scientist magazine ran a short piece on the WHO’s claim about self-inflicted HIV in its October 30th edition. But it didn’t make waves. Yesterday, however, a photo of the print version of the article did the rounds on Twitter.

International news outlets then jumped on the story, which is not surprising giving the sensational claim it makes. But tracing the footnotes, as above, quickly debunked the ridiculous assertion. In response, a WHO spokesperson took to Twitter today, citing a “typo” in the report.

Shortly thereafter, the WHO issued an official correction:

In fact, what is accurate to say is that slightly more than half of the Greece’s new HIV cases are among those who inject drugs. WHO recognizes that there is no evidence suggesting that deliberate self-infection with HIV goes beyond a few anecdotal cases. The statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the report, for which WHO apologizes.

In fact, this doesn’t completely clarify the matter. According to both the ECDC/WHO report and the Greek health ministry, only around a quarter, not a half, of new HIV cases in 2011 were among intravenous drug users. (They account for between two-thirds and nearly all of the increase in infections from 2010 to 2011.)

The lesson, as always, is to vet the sources of any particularly sensational allegations—and not to trust even the best international organizations to get every detail right. The haste of many to jump on the statement, despite easily traceable evidence to refute it, reveals a depressing bias amid a human tragedy: