Objective: To describe recent patterns and trends in the HIV epidemic in eastern Europe.
Methods: AIDS programme managers and epidemiologists of 23 countries were contacted and requested to provide national HIV surveillance data. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS/World Health Organisation country fact sheets were reviewed and analysed, and this information was supplemented with published HIV prevalence and sexually transmitted disease case reporting information, unpublished travel reports and expert evaluations.
Results: The cumulative number of HIV cases reported in the region increased more than fivefold between 1995 and 1997, from 9111 to 46573; Ukraine, Russia and Belarus accounted for about 90% of all new cases. Dramatic increases in the number of HIV-infected injecting drug users (IDU) were reported from these countries, and a similar pattern was emerging in Moldova, the Baltic States, the Caucasus and Kazakstan. In central Europe, the increase in the number of cases was much lower, and (with the exception of Poland) homosexual transmission was most common, whereas in the Balkan countries, cases due to heterosexual transmission were reported relatively more frequently. At the end of 1997, more than 50% of all cases region-wide had been reported from IDU. HIV prevalence data were inconclusive. The number of reported syphilis cases had risen significantly in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Conclusion: Our data confirm that HIV must have been rapidly spreading among IDU in several countries of the former Soviet Union, whereas central and southeast Europe have so far escaped a more extensive spread of HIV. Factors that might have fuelled a massive spread among IDU include changes in drug demand and supply, migration and specific local drug production and consumption patterns. High rates of syphilis reported in the countries of the former Soviet Union highlight that subregion's increased vulnerability with regards to a further spread of the epidemic, via heterosexual intercourse, into the general population.