The World Health Organization (WHO) has clarified that a shocking statistic in a recent report on health disparities in Europe — the claim that “about half” of new HIV cases in Greece are “self-inflicted” in order to access public benefits — isn’t true. According to WHO, that sentence was an “editing error” in the report, and there aren’t actually any documented cases of people deliberately infecting themselves with HIV in European nations.
The statistic was buried on page 112 of the WHO’s report, but it spread like wildfire on Monday after being picked up on social media. The story gained traction after the British magazine New Scientist reported that Greeks who have HIV receive a monthly benefit of about $945 from the government (although that article has since been updated). The self-infliction narrative was particularly popular in the conservative blogosphere, as outlets like Fox Business, the Daily Caller, and the Blaze insinuated that Greek people were looking to cheat the welfare system. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh claimed the story was proof of “what the welfare state does to people.”
Media Matters for America quickly debunked the claim on Monday, pointing out that the WHO’s report appeared to be misconstruing a 2011 study. That study mentioned that an “authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals” to obtain public benefits — but that was simply an anecdote, and wasn’t substantiated with any hard data.
But it isn’t true. In an official update to the report, WHO explains that the sentence about self-infliction was essentially a typo. It was supposed to say “about half of infections are due to needle injection, some of which is deliberate self-infection.” WHO officials emphasized that “there is no evidence suggesting that deliberate self-infection with HIV goes beyond a few anecdotal cases.”
Greece has experienced a sharp uptick in HIV rates lately — an estimated 200 percent jump since 2011. But that has more to do with the country’s economic priorities than the low-income people who may be eager for public benefits. As Greece has doggedly pursued austerity economics, the country has cut its public health spending by 40 percent over the past five years, and 35,000 health care workers have lost their jobs. Researchers also suspect that a rising unemployment rate has put a strain on residents’ mental health and encouraged more people to turn to intravenous drugs. But Greece’s HIV prevention budget has been slashed, so government needle exchange programs have started to run out of clean syringes for heroin addicts.