No, Large Numbers of Greek People Are Not Giving Themselves HIV to Collect Benefits

The World Health Organization makes a huge mistake, but not before Rush Limbaugh turns it into a huge news story.
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Greece is such a nightmarish hellscape these days that people will believe just about anything about it. 

And why not? Youth unemployment hit an ungodly 65 percent. Families who can't afford energy are literally burning their living rooms to heat their homes. Neo-Nazis, whose members have murdered political opponents, are the country's third-most popular party. As Matthew O'Brien has put it, Greece is the economic equivalent of the Tyson Zone: "a rarified plane of crazy where any story about it seems plausible."

But not this story...

This week, Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report jumped on an astonishing claim: Large numbers of Greeks were giving themselves HIV on purpose to collect government benefits.

"Half of new H.I.V. infections [are] self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 per month and faster admission on to drug substitution programmes," read one version of the European Region report from the World Health Organization.

The story played right into a bevy of right-wing talking points: Over-spending killed the Greek economy; the social safety net has dangerous consequences; Europe is horrible, generally. Limbaugh raged with characteristic restraint and sensitivity... 

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 ...  Is that true, Greece is like the Gay Capital of the World?  You heard that?...

Wow, well, anyway, the WHO report was wrong, thank God. Although the organization has record "a few" cases of self-inflicted HIV (a tragedy, in itself), an editing error created the impression that "half" of all new cases were purposeful attempts to collect benefits.

Here is the WHO correction:

In September 2013 the WHO Regional Office published a report “Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region” which was prepared by the UCL Institute of Equity, United Kingdom. In this report, reference is made to: “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.”

WHO wishes to point out that this statement is the consequence of an error in the editing phase of the document. The original source for the statement is a correspondence published in the Lancet by Alexander Kentikelenis and colleagues in September 2011. In this article, Kentikelenis mentions “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” (Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drug, 2011).

WHO recognizes that there is no evidence suggesting that “deliberate self-infection with HIV” goes beyond few, anecdotal cases. At the same time WHO recognizes that Greece has reported an significant, 52% increase of new HIV infection in 2011 compared to the 2010, largely driven by infections among people who inject drugs in recent years. The reasons for this increase remain multifaceted and WHO welcomes efforts to of the ad hoc working group and other entities to fully understand the underlying reasons and recommend appropriate measures to extend the benefits of the comprehensive package of interventions for harm reduction to all people who inject drugs.

This is the problem with the Greek Zone: "I'll believe whatever I hear" becomes a rationalization for "too good to check."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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