Greece reintroduces forced HIV testing

  

A controversial measure that allows the police to detain people and force them to be tested for HIV has been reinstated by the new Greek health minister, Adonis Georgiadis.

In one of his first decisions as health minister, Georgiadis last week re-introduced the Public Health Decree 39A, which imposes measures such as obligatory testing for hepatitis, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and communicable diseases, according to the Greek media Enet.

Health organisations say the decree stigmatises drug users, sex workers and undocumented migrants in particular. The text also states that any occupants of housing which "may cause danger to public health" should be evicted from their homes, without any alternative being offered.

The measure, which was first introduced by Socialist health minister Andreas Loverdos in April 2012 shortly before the general election, resulted in the round-up and subsequent forced testing of hundreds of women.

The 17 found to be HIV positive had their names, personal details and photographs published in the media, on the grounds of protecting public health.

The women, identified as "prostitutes" (although there was no evidence that they were involved in sex work) and accused of being "health bombs", were detained for months until they were finally acquitted of "intended bodily injury".

The final five were released in March 2013. Shortly afterwards, the regulation was repealed.

Under pressure

In Greece, the entire public health system is under enormous pressure due to austerity measures. In Spain, the government has legally restricted access to care for undocumented migrants.

At the same time, groups that were already facing vulnerability before the crisis, such as undocumented migrants, asylum-seekers, drug users, sex workers, destitute European citizens and homeless people, have seen a reduction in social safety nets.

Spain and Greece are not the only countries experiencing pressure on social benefits.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron promised new controls to rein in migrants' access to healthcare, housing and social benefits, amid growing calls to tackle "social tourism" in the UK.

Rates of the HIV virus have risen by more than 200% since 2011 in Greece, fuelled by increasing drug abuse amid spiralling youth unemployment, at the same time as cuts have been made to HIV prevention budgets.

The budget to the Okana drug treatment centres was cut to €20 million in 2012 from €35 million in 2010.

Today, unemployment is above 20% and many Greeks are now facing the threat of extreme poverty for the first time in their lifetimes.

The homeless have multiplied and gathered en masse in central squares around the country.

Violating human rights

The re-introduction of the decree has been met with criticism and condemnation by health organisations.

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 marginalised and suffering from the results of the disastrous austerity policies, championed by the Greek government," the group said.

The humanitarian group Doctors of the World said that instead of tackling the underlying reasons for illness, poverty and addiction, the health minister is clearly 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 immunisation 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.

Doctors of the World said it would continue to offer help, medical coverage and social support to all people in need of healthcare. 

"We will continue to fight on the same side as the most vulnerable populations and to defend human rights whenever they are breached."

Positions: 

Civil society groups were outraged. The HOMOphonia-Thessaloniki Pride organisation said: "Public health is not protected by the castigation of people who are HIV-positive, but through the implementation of integrated programmes against HIV/Aids, through the introduction of sex education in schools, and regular public campaigns."

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