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In eastern Europe, where Covid cases are rising and vaccination rates lower than across the EU, another crisis is brewing the AFP agency reports. The fight against HIV has been seriously hampered by the Covid pandemic.

Bulgaria and Romania are both former eastern bloc countries, and in 2019, 76% of Aids cases diagnosed in Europe were in the east, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

“It is obvious that the number of contaminations has increased since the start of the pandemic”, Alina Schiau from the Romanian anti-Aids Association told AFP.

As coronavirus took hold, hospitals closed to non-Covid patients, says Davron Mukhamadiev, regional health and care coordinator for Red Cross Europe (IFRC).

Quarantine requirements, travel restrictions and reduced access to rapid testing and diagnostic services all undermined efforts to roll back HIV/Aids, he said.

UNAids data shows 140,000 new infections in eastern Europe and central Asia in 2020, compared with 170,000 in 2019, which experts attribute to a dramatic slowdown in screening, not a drop in cases.

In 2020, for example, Romania managed to screen only 234,420 people for HIV/Aids – down nearly a third from 334,410 the previous year.

It is a similar story in neighbouring Bulgaria. Regional health centres were “overwhelmed and hardly ever did any HIV testing during Covid”, said Alexander Milanov, programme director at the country’s National Patients’ Organisation.

The pandemic has disrupted supply chains and the transport of medicines, exacerbating historic shortages in countries such as Romania despite huge scientific strides that have dramatically improved outcomes for HIV patients in rich nations.

The HIV/AIDS crisis in Romania dates back to the communist years.

About 11,000 children born in the 1980s under the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu were infected as a result of contaminated or unsterilised syringes or transfusions with untested blood.

Romania’s health ministry did not respond to an AFP request for a comment.