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HIV rates in Estonia rising even as testing becoming less frequent

Candles lit in Narva to mark World Aids Day, Friday, December 1, 2023.
Candles lit in Narva to mark World Aids Day, Friday, December 1, 2023. Source: ERR

Rates of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection in Estonia have been rising over the past two years, even as testing frequency has fallen. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 40 percent of HIV infection cases in Estonia may remain undetected.

If untreated, HIV can develop into full-blown  Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Friday, December 1, was World AIDS day.

Estonia reportedly tops the Europe-wide list in terms of infection rates.

In the first nine months of this year, 145 new HIV cases were found in Estonia, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Health professionals in the field add that for a lengthy period of time now, ie. one measurable in years, the virus has been propagating among the population of what are referred to as "ordinary" people, rather than, for instance, intravenous drug users.

Health Minister Riina Sikkut said of Friday's events that:  "December 1 is a signal day in raising awareness of the problems of HIV and AIDS, and the challenges related to their prevention and treatment."

"It is vital to remember that we can reduce the spread of HIV only by acting together," the minister added, via a press release.

Risk groups primarily focus on "middle-aged heterosexual men and women," ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Friday, giving the lie to the myth of HIV being confined to, for instance, heroin addicts, or spatially, to Ida-Viru County.

In fact, Tallinn and Harju County lead the way, with over half of new cases reported annually.

Casual sexual relationships are also a more significant vector for the viral spread, than is the sharing of needles in intravenous drug use.

HIV-positive persons lit candles in Narva

World AIDS Day was marked Friday by a network of HIV-positive people who lit candles of solidarity in Peetri Square in Narva (pictured).

Olha Heisulenko, a counselor, said: "This ribbon of candles is our symbol. This is how we remember those who have died as a result of HIV infection. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the more opportunities a person gets to live a normal, decent life."

HIV tests can be conducted at the Linda clinic in Narva and at many other sites in Estonia (see below).

A test involves a blood sample being taken, and those being tested do not have to wait for a long time – after a minute or two the results are clear.

Over 200,000 tests were performed in Estonia last year, yet despite the rising numbers, only around half that number were conducted this year, AK reported.

Part of this was the result of the effects of the pandemic, Kristiina Vainomäe, head of the Linda clinic, told AK.

Those who are sexually active could test once or twice per year, Vainomäe recommended.

According to a survey conducted by the Health Development Institute (TAI) last year, more than half of Estonian residents have never taken an HIV test.

HIV and AIDS in Europe quick facts (Source: Ministry of Social Affairs)

  • According to WHO, HIV remains one of the major public health blights, claiming approximately 40 million lives worldwide.
  • In 2022, 110,486 new cases were detected in the European region, with a total of more than 2 million people infected in that time.

HIV and AIDS in Estonia quick facts (Source: Ministry of Social Affairs)

  • Among EU countries that collect HIV testing data, Estonia has one of the highest levels of testing, even as testing levels have been falling.
  • 250 new HIV cases were diagnosed in Estonia last year, and 161 new HIV cases in the first ten months of this year. 
  • While before the Covid pandemic, HIV tests were conducted in Estonia about 215,000 times a year, the years 2020 and 2021 led to a drop in testing to approximately 190,000 tests per year. 
  • The decline in testing activity during the pandemic is also reflected in diagnosed HIV cases. According to the Health Board, 147 new cases of HIV infection were discovered in 2020 and 125 in 2021.

The Ministry of Social Affairs says HIV is not an infection spread among groups of a specific sexual orientation, nationality or demographic group. HIV is spread during unprotected sexual intercourse, through contact with infected blood for instance when sharing needles during intravenous drug use, and also from mother to child during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as during breastfeeding.

Early diagnosis of HIV is very important because it limits the spread of the infection to other people and allows treatment to be started as early as possible, the ministry goes on.

A positive HIV test result does not mean a death sentence, the social affairs ministry adds. HIV can be effectively controlled via medication, and timely detection and treatment helps maintain quality of life for many years.

 If a person is unaware of their HIV infection and does not receive treatment, however, AIDS, which is the final phase of HIV infection, will develop.

 In Estonia, treatment is guaranteed for everyone. Testing is free at HIV testing and counseling offices, a list of which can be found on the TAI website here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Barbara Oja

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera,' reporterJüri Nikolaev; Ministry of Social Affairs

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