Within about half a year, four young intravenous drug users in the Helsinki region have been diagnosed with HIV infections contracted in Finland. While that may not sound like many, these cases are setting off alarm bells among public health officials, as they signal a setback in anti-HIV efforts.
"The situation is exceptional as only two such cases were diagnosed in the preceding five years," Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) said in a statement on Monday.
According to the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), there is now a serious risk of HIV infections spreading among those who shoot drugs. Meanwhile there are more than 1,000 new cases of hepatitis C annually in Finland, mostly contracted in a similar way through the use of shared needles.
Turnaround in early 2000s
Around the turn of the millennium, more than 250 people were annually infected with HIV in the capital region after injecting narcotics intravenously.
"The situation was then brought under control through an increase in testing, health counselling and distribution of clean injection equipment," says HUS.
The THL urges intravenous drug users to be tested for HIV, noting that it is crucial for infections to be diagnosed as early as possible to prevent them from developing into full-blown AIDS. It also says that health and social workers should step up counselling services and distribution of clean equipment.
Fewer than 200 new infections annually
Since 1980, some 4,000 HIV infections have been detected in Finland. The THL estimates that there are also around 600 people who have unknowingly been infected. Since the turn of the millennium, there have been fewer than 200 new infections each year, primarily among men in their 30s.
Officials in eastern Finland also report a recent rise in cases among older men who travel across the border into Russia.
The THL says that last year 10 people died of AIDS in Finland, the highest number since 2012, when 13 died. Other than 2012, there have been 10 or fewer AIDS fatalities annually since 1996. The first AIDS death was registered 30 years ago.
Besides intravenous drug users, says the institute, risk groups for HIV infections in Finland are men who have sex with men, prisoners, sex workers as well as some groups of travellers and immigrants, including those involved in commercial sexual exploitation. The THL recommends HIV tests for asylum seekers from areas where "the prevalence of HIV infection exceeds 1.0%, e.g. for sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan".
Of 153 HIV new cases diagnosed last year, 90 patients were foreigners. Just over two thirds of new patients were male.