Greek Health Minister Institutes Mandatory HIV Testing

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Monday August 12, 2013

HIV activists and human rights groups are up in arms over a recent move by the health minister of Greece to reinstate a controversial measure that allows police to stop people who they suspect are HIV-positive, and force them to be tested. The measure urges landlords to evict tenants with HIV, as a public health threat.

"The Greek Health Minister is clearly violating basic human rights and human dignity under the guise of 'protecting the community from contagious diseases.' Doctors of the World asks the Greek government to focus on the bigger public health problems, such as children's universal right to immunization and the need for this right to be implemented, something the government is no longer able to guarantee. We also call on all health professionals to refuse to conduct mandatory testing," said the humanitarian group Doctors of the World, in a recent statement.

According to the Greek news outlet ENET, Health Minister Adonis Georgladis has reinstated Public Health Decree 39A, a 2012 measure that allows police to detain people suspected of being HIV positive and force them to be tested.

In April 2012, the measure was used for the forced testing of hundreds of women. Seventeen were discovered to be HIV-positive, and their photographs and personal information were spread across media outlets Police characterized the women as "prostitutes," despite the fact that no evidence was ever provided to back up the accusations. These "prostitutes" were arrested for allegedly having unprotected sex with customers while HIV-positive. After the women were detained for months, the regulation was repealed and they were sent home.

Health Regulation No. 39A makes health examinations compulsory, and authorizes law enforcement to detain individuals suspected of being HIV-positive. The regulation was first introduced in April 2012, but repealed this April after it was revealed that the police were using it to target sex workers, homeless individuals and immigrants for arrest, forced testing and long-term detention, as Human Rights Watch noted.

With the measure Georgladis reintroduced, police can force anyone to be tested. A positive test result can mean the loss of ones employment, and, according to the measure's language, a positive person "should be evicted from their homes."

"The police and media outlets published and broadcast the women's personal data, photographs and information from their medical records of their HIV-positive status," said Human Rights Watch in a statement. "Many of the women arrested during the 2012 crackdown were detained pending trial for months before they were finally acquitted by the courts, who found no strong evidence for the charges. The final five were released in March 2013 from pretrial detention after being acquitted."

Now that same measure is being implemented again. With the measure Georgladis reintroduced, police can force anyone to be tested. A positive test result can mean the loss of ones employment, and, according to the measure's language, a positive person "should be evicted from their homes, without any alternative being offered."

"The main concern of the Hellenic Government remains the shielding of the nation against public health threats, especially in a country like Greece with an annual massive tourist influx," Georgiadis told Healthline, in a statement defending the decree. "Thus, the government's political decision to issue a specific health regulation was deemed incumbent in order to both secure interventions concerning emerging and re-emerging diseases at a global level as well as enhance the response to local events of public health significance in high risk populations."

Greece has been increasingly fearful of people with HIV as rates of the virus have risen over 200 percent since 2011. Many attribute these high rates of infection to austerity cuts, increased drug abuse and rising unemployment among young adults, which is now over 20 percent. According to the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV infections among injecting drug users has doubled from 206 to 487 since 2011. At the same time, HIV prevention budgets have taken a major cut, from 35 million Euros in 2010 to 20 million last year.

The homeless population in Greece is growing with the numbers gathering in central squares increasing daily. Despite being one of the most gay-friendly countries in Europe, the backlash against people with HIV has been alarming for visitors and natives alike, with many organizations speaking out strongly against the measure.

"This decree is a serious violation of basic human rights, human dignity and medical ethics," said Doctors of the World. "It goes against the recommendations of international public health specialists and human rights bodies, including those from the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the European Centre for Disease Control and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.