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Greece Financial Crisis Creates Health Issues For Greeks

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ATHENS, Greece -- The Greek financial crisis has become a health hazard.

Economically vulnerable Greeks are losing health care access amid dwindling budgets, facing higher risks of HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases, and in some cases, even dying, according to a study released online Monday by The Lancet, a British medical journal.

Citing data from the Greek government, the European Union and other sources, the authors of the report traced an alarming deterioration in health data in the past few years as Greece struggled through annual recessions that have pushed it closer to a default despite international bailout efforts. Greeks are struggling to cope with austerity measures that have triggered strikes and protests.

Unofficial data reported in the Greek parliament cite a 25 percent rise in suicides in 2010 over the previous year, and the health minister reported a 40 percent rise in suicides in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010, according to the Lancet report.

One co-authors, Alexander Kentikelenis of the sociology department at the University of Cambridge, said the study reported on issues "we know are directly related to the crisis."

The data noted a sharp rise in HIV infections in late 2010, as well as projections that new infections will rise by 52 percent to more than 900 this year compared with 2010. Half of the increases so far are attributable to infections among intravenous drug users.

Data for the first seven months of this year show more than a 10-fold rise in new infections in these drug users compared with the same period last year. Many are infected because of unsafe sexual practices.

"The way this is linked to the financial crisis is that injecting drug users do not have access to occasional employment or handouts or pocket money from parents," Kentikelenis said. Many, he noted, "resort to prostitution to cover the costs of the drugs."

Heroin use has also risen, while budget cuts have led to the loss of some work programs for people living on the street.

Kentikelenis said there was a significant lag time in obtaining data on health care, in contrast to some market and other financial data that is available almost immediately. The year 2007 was used as a "pre-crisis baseline" in the study, he said.

The report cited data showing that homicide and theft rates nearly doubled between 2007 and 2009, and that the number of people able to obtain sickness benefits declined by around 40 percent during the same period, probably due to budget cuts.

The authors of the report, which was subtitled "Omens of a Greek Tragedy," said there had been significant reductions in alcohol consumption and that police data show incidents of people driving while drunk have dropped.

"There is space for government intervention that will make the situation better," Kentikelenis said. "The situation, we think, is still reversible."

Meanwhile, a leading member of the international team assessing heavily indebted Greece's progress said the government must undertake even deeper reforms to receive the next batch of its bailout.

German newspaper Welt am Sonntag on Saturday quoted Paul Mathias Thomsen, the head of the International Monetary Fund's delegation in Athens, as saying the adjustment "program won't work if authorities don't take the path that requires much tougher structural reforms."

Greece is struggling to meet budget and reform targets to qualify for the next euro8 billion ($11 billion) installment of its euro110 billion package of international bailout loans to avoid bankruptcy.

European Central Bank, European Commission and IMF experts will conclude their assessment of Greece's progress later this month.

On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, leaders of the eurozone's two biggest economies, they have reached an agreement about how to strengthen Europe's shaky banking sector amid the region's debt crisis.

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