Thanks to an editing error, Rush Limbaugh, and the Drudge Report, many people have come to believe that Greeks are purposely injecting themselves with HIV in order to get government benefits. With that faulty information circulating wildly with breathless headlines, the World Health Organization is frantically explaining that this is not the case. "There is no evidence of people in Greece or anywhere else in Europe deliberately infecting themselves," Martin Donoghoe, a spokesman for the WHO, said in a statement.
The error came from this line which was buried in the WHO's European Region report. Here's how it read in the version that was distributed:
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
People desperately infecting them with HIV to get welfare is a pretty clickable story, that plays on fears of both the left and right: Austerity, health care, drug panic, government handouts. Limbaugh in particular jumped on that last line, and parlayed it into lessons on how not to trust the government and his unfamiliarity with "gay capitals":
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?...
Thankfully, the story isn't true. The report, a spokeswoman told The New York Times, was supposed to say "about half of infections are due to needle injection, some of which is deliberate self-infection." And even then, they still aren't sure where those cases came from, as they are totally anecdotal. The WHO says the error was because of a bad game of "telephone" with folks at the Institute of Health Equity at University College London, were citing second- and third-hand rumors.
The study cited a Lancet study that said that “a few” such cases had been found, though that study cited yet another report. It was not immediately clear if any such cases had been documented.
Someone told someone about a report that said one thing about another report... you get the point. All those faulty citations mean that the WHO's original statement, which wasn't even cited properly, was probably wrong to begin with.
While the scenario of HIV/AIDS in exchange for welfare may seem far-fetched, it was only this summer when Out reported of homeless men in New York City with full-blown AIDS who let their disease get worse to get benefits like food stamps and shelter.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.