STA, 29 November 2019 - Slovenia is seeing the third straight year with a very low number of newly discovered HIV infection cases, a trend experts attribute to successful preventive care, especially among gay men. Around 1,000 people with HIV are estimated to be living in Slovenia, one in five without knowing. Those who receive treatment mostly cannot transmit the virus.
The National Institute of Public Health (NIJZ) said ahead of World AIDS Day (1 December) that 25 new HIV cases were diagnosed by 22 November this year, ten fewer than in the whole of 2018. Men, 15 of whom gay, accounted for 19 cases, and women for six.
AIDS was diagnosed for one man and four women, all of whom had also been diagnosed with HIV earlier in the year. Two persons with HIV died, while there were no deaths among those diagnosed with AIDS.
The NIJZ believes the relatively low number of infection instances among homosexual men is the result of combined preventive measures, especially easy access to testing and a changed attitude to testing in this population and to getting treatment immediately after diagnosis.
The institute puts the estimated total number of HIV-infected persons in Slovenia at the start of 2019 at slightly under 1,000, with roughly a fifth of them not being aware of the infection.
In order to reduce this share, the plan is to soon bring self-test kits for HIV to pharmacies in Slovenia.
According to Janez Tomažič, an infectiologist at the UKC Ljubljana hospital, efforts have been under way to bring these tests to Slovenia for years.
The moment seems to be arriving now, with Tomažič stressing the need for an affordable price, meaning no more than 20 euros, and for laying down the protocols that follow after a positive test.
Early detection and treatment are key to preventing the spreading of HIV. The vast majority of what the NIJZ says were 657 persons with a confirmed HIV infection receive antiretroviral therapy and as a result the viral load with 600 of them is too low for them to be in danger of transmitting the virus.
The national strategy on AIDS meanwhile also envisages pre-exposure prophylaxis. While this prevention method for at risk groups is presently only being conducted as a test project, Tomažič would like to see it covered by basic compulsory health insurance.
Men who have sexual intercourse with other men remain the group most at risk of infection and Legebitra has been organising tests for this population for ten years. The NGO has a test location in Ljubljana and ten more towns in Slovenia.
Mitja Ćosić of Legebitra has told the STA that testing around the country has proved vital, with the recent period mostly seeing positive tests in non-central areas.
He said the attitude to testing had changed substantially, but added that the stigma concerning testing diminishing at least in this group did not mean that the stigma around HIV was gone.
It is present in particular at locations where people come in contact with HIV-positive persons, meaning especially in health centres where the staff are aware of the infection and engage in inappropriate and discriminatory behaviour, Ćosić said.
Meanwhile, Evita Leskovšek of the NIJZ argued that the successful trend showed all had been done that was possible in this field. She is however worried by the rise in other STDs.
She said awareness needed to be raised further about safe sex, while there is also the need to pay attention to other groups where HIV-infection incidence could increase in the coming years.