By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Greece's debt crisis is hitting the health of the nation hard, with the number of suicides increasing, more people turning to drugs and prostitution and rapidly rising rates of HIV infections, researchers said on Monday.
Swingeing budget cuts and growing unemployment are pushing more people into severe depression and drug-dependence, and cutbacks in hospital budgets and healthcare services mean fewer people can see their doctors or access help.
"The picture of health in Greece is concerning," said David Stuckler, a sociologist at Britain's University of Cambridge who reported his findings in the Lancet medical journal.
"We're seeing ... worrisome trends -- a doubling of suicides, rising homicides, a 50 percent rise in HIV infections and people reporting that their health has got worse but they're not going to the doctor even though they felt they needed to."
In the past two years, the Greek government has imposed harsh austerity measures to deal with a debt mountain as the country plummeted into its deepest recession in 40 years and was forced to accept an EU-IMF bailout.
Greece is expected to run out of cash as soon as mid-November. Inspectors from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank -- the so-called "troika" -- are currently assessing whether Athens has fulfilled the criteria for more aid.
In the meantime, businesses are shutting down, the public sector is shrinking and unemployment is running at more than 16 percent. Health budget cuts have also led Greece to slash the prices it will pay for medicines, triggering supply concerns.
Stuckler's team found that suicides rose by 17 percent in 2009 from 2007 and said unofficial data quoted in Greece's parliament point to even greater rises, of 25 to 40 percent.
The data mirror grim local news reports.
In tales that have shocked Athenians, a former businessman was reported to have jumped to his death leaving a note saying the financial crisis drove him to it, and the owner of a small retail firm was found hanging from rope tied to a bridge. His suicide note said simply: "Don't look for other reasons. The economic crisis led me to this."
LESSON TO OTHERS
Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who worked with Stuckler on the Lancet paper, said other struggling European nations should take note.
"The experience of Greece is a warning of what can happen if there are major cuts to healthcare in the face of a recession," he said in a telephone interview.
A previous study by McKee, Stuckler and others in July found suicide rates across Europe rose sharply in the two years to 2009 as the financial crisis drove unemployment up and squeezed incomes. Greece and Ireland were worst hit.
In Monday's paper, the researchers also found a significant increase in HIV infections in Greece in late 2010 and said data suggest that new infections with the virus that causes AIDS will rise by 52 percent this year compared to last.
Rates of heroin use rose by 20 percent in 2009, and at the same time, budget cuts in 2009 and 2010 meant a loss of a third of the country's street-work programs designed to help drug addicts and provide them with HIV prevention services.
Stuckler said there were reports of some drug users deliberately infecting themselves with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, to get access to welfare benefits of 700 euros ($940) a month and faster admission into drug substitution programs. "It's really alarming," he said.
Greece has had a rocky relationship with pharmaceutical companies as a result of the crisis, imposing some of the most draconian price cuts for medicines of any European country, with unpaid bills a further burden for pharmaceutical companies.
Swiss group Roche has stopped delivering cancer drugs to some state-funded Greek hospitals that have not paid their bills, with patients being told to collect medicines from privately run pharmacies as they are more reliable payers.
Roche and other drugmakers have also been forced to accept Greek government bonds instead of cash for some outstanding debts -- a move that is expected to increase bad debt provisions, although Greece accounts for only around 1 percent of the global pharmaceuticals market.
(Additional reporting by Simon Roach and Ben Hirschler; Editing by Janet Lawrence)