No, people in Greece are not intentionally giving themselves HIV in order to receive government benefits, the World Health Organization said Tuesday, correcting a rather epic mistake in one of the agency's recent health reports that had prompted the erroneous claim to spread like wildfire online Monday thanks to social media and a host of breathless headlines.
The now-debunked claim in question was buried about two-thirds of the way into a 188-page report that was published late last month (emphasis mine): "H.I.V. rates and heroin use have risen significantly, with about half of new H.I.V. infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 per month and faster admission on to drug substitution programmes," stated the report in a small case study on page 112.
The sensational claim went largely unnoticed until yesterday, when it fueled headlines such as "Greeks self-inject HIV to claim benefits" (Al Jazeera), "Greeks 'Injecting HIV To Claim €700 Benefits'" (Sky News), "European Crisis: Half of HIV Infections in Greece Are Self-Inflicted" (Fox Business News), and "Desperate Greek citizens 'are intentionally infecting themselves with HIV' to qualify for state benefit which is set aside for addict" (Daily Mail), among others.
The story probably hit peak hysteria stateside in the conservative media, where it earned a traffic-driving link on the Drudge Report, and Rush Limbaugh made the implicit argument explicit when he cited the story as evidence of "what the welfare state does to people." Here's a snippet from Rush's show:
"It's all the fault of government, according to the UN. It's all the fault of the Greek government. So the people — ignorant though they are, blissfully ignorant though they are — they're always victims, they are always innocent. They never have one responsibility, not one iota of responsibility in any aspect of their lives."
By this morning, the WHO, the public health arm of the United Nations, was doing its best to clean up its mess, explaining that the mistake was the result of an editing error and stressing that "there is no evidence suggesting that deliberate self-infection with HIV goes beyond a few anecdotal cases."
If you follow the footnotes, as the New York Times does this morning, there's some doubt about even that anecdotal evidence. The study the WHO report cites is from the medical journal the Lancet, but that paper, in turn, actually cites a third study. A spokewoman for the institute that produced the WHO report tells the Times the fragment in question should have read "about half of infections are due to needle injection, some of which is deliberate self-infection."
Here's the full WHO correction:
In September 2013, WHO/Europe published “Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region”. The report incorrectly states that, 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”.
This statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the report. The original source is correspondence published in the “Lancet” by Alexander Kentikelenis and colleagues in September 2011. Kentikelenis et al. mention “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” (Athens: Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs; 2011).
WHO recognizes that there is no evidence suggesting that deliberate self-infection with HIV goes beyond a few anecdotal cases. WHO also recognizes that Greece reported a significant increase (52%) in new HIV infections from 2010 to 2011, largely driven by infections among people who inject drugs. The causes for this increase are multifaceted and WHO welcomes the work of the ad hoc expert group and other entities to improve understanding of them and to recommend appropriate measures to extend the benefits of the comprehensive package of interventions for harm reduction to all people who inject drugs.
This post has been updated.