by Mike Andrew -
SGN A&E Writer
A controversial law that allows Greek police to arrest people and force them to be tested for HIV has been reinstated by the country's new health minister, Adonis Georgiadis.
In one of his first decisions in office, Georgiadis re-imposed Public Health Decree 39A, which allows mandatory testing for HIV, hepatitis C, and other sexually transmitted infections and communicable diseases, according to the Greek news network ENET.
The measure was first introduced in April 2012 and was abolished in April of this year, after a public outcry when hundreds of women were arrested and tested by police.
Seventeen were found to be HIV-positive and had their names, personal details, and photographs published in the media, on the grounds of protecting public health.
The women were publicly identified as 'prostitutes,' although there was no evidence that they were involved in sex work. Sensational media accounts described them as 'health bombs.'
The women were detained for months until they were finally acquitted of 'intended bodily injury.' The last five were released in March, and the regulation was repealed shortly afterward.
DOCTORS CRITICIZE MOVE
The Greek government's decision to re-impose the measure was greeted with almost universal condemnation.
The respected British medical journal The Lancet published an editorial on July 13 criticizing the regulation.
'Regulations that stigmatize vulnerable and already marginalized groups are counterproductive since they are likely to deter people at risk of HIV from seeking testing and services,' said the publication, adding that 'the measures ... seem more about political posturing rather than constructively engaging with public health.'
The Lancet warned, 'Rather than tackling HIV ethically and effectively, Greece is storing up health problems for itself in the near future.'
The humanitarian group Doctors of the World agreed, saying that instead of tackling the underlying reasons for illness, poverty, and addiction, the health minister is violating basic human rights and human dignity under the guise of 'protecting the community from contagious diseases.'
'Doctors of the World asks the Greek government to focus on the bigger public health problems, such as children's universal right to immunization and the need for this right to be implemented, something the government is no longer able to guarantee. We also call on all health professionals to refuse to conduct mandatory testing,' the group said in a statement.
The London-based Greece Solidarity Campaign said the decision by the health ministry was a shocking development.
'Clearly, this decision is based on targeting many of those already marginalized and suffering from the results of the disastrous austerity policies, championed by the Greek government,' the group said.
THE PRICE OF AUSTERITY
Meanwhile, Greece seems caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.
The entire public health system in Greece is under enormous pressure due to austerity measures mandated by the European Central Bank. At the same time, groups that were already at greatest risk of adverse health outcomes such as undocumented migrants, asylum-seekers, drug users, sex workers, destitute European citizens, and homeless people, have seen a reduction in social protections.
Today, unemployment is above 26%, and as high as 67% for workers under 25, and many Greeks are facing the threat of extreme poverty for the first time in their lives. The homeless have multiplied and gathered en masse in central squares around the country.
Rates of HIV infection in Greece have risen by more than 200% since 2011, fuelled by increasing substance abuse amid spiraling youth unemployment, while at the same time cuts have been made to HIV-prevention budgets.
The budget to the Okana drug treatment centers, for example, was cut to ¬20 million (about $26 million U.S.) in 2012, from ¬35 million ($46 million) in 2010.
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