Limbaugh Promotes A New Myth: Greeks Gave Themselves HIV For Welfare Money

Rush Limbaugh is citing an erroneous report about HIV in Greece to falsely claim that half of all recent infections there were self-inflicted for the purpose of receiving government benefits. In fact, the original report on AIDS and HIV in Greece does not confirm a single instance of a person intentionally infecting himself with HIV.

Limbaugh is surely fascinated by this erroneous report because it fits into the false right-wing narrative that government programs that help the poor encourage laziness and dependency.

Limbaugh read from a post about Greece by the British magazine New Scientist during his November 25 radio show:

After reading from the post, Limbaugh attempted to link LGBT people to diseases by saying, “Is that true? Greece is like the gay capital of the world? You heard that? I just had a note flashed to me that says -- well, I don't know about that.”

The magazine reported that Greeks who have HIV receive a monthly benefit of 700 euros, which is currently about $945.

For the statistic that half of all recent infections in Greece were self-inflicted, New Scientist cited a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), an agency of the United Nations. 

However, the WHO report is incorrect. The WHO's source for this figure is a 2011 study in the British medical journal The Lancet. Here is what the Lancet study actually says:

An authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes. These programmes offer access to synthetic opioids and can have waiting lists of 3 years or more in urban areas. [emphasis added]

Somehow, the “few individuals” mentioned by The Lancet became “half of new HIV infections” in the WHO report.

Furthermore, the “authoritative report” cited by The Lancet says:

An additional factor the committee believed worth considering is the well-founded suspicion that some problem users are intentionally infected with HIV, because of the benefit they are entitled to (approximately € 1,400 every two months), and also because they are granted “exceptional admission” to the Substitution Programme. It is well-known that the Substitution Programme has a long waiting list and that the waiting time can be over 3-4 years. Drug users with a severe chronic condition jump the queue and are admitted in a short period of time. [emphasis added]

So, the original source for this claim merely says that there is a “well-founded suspicion” that “some problem users” of IV drugs had intentionally infected themselves. A “suspicion” is not the same thing as a documented occurrence, let alone “half” of all recent infections. 

UPDATE:

WHO posted a correction to its study on November 26, explaining that the claim that “about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits” was the result of an editing error:

In September 2013, WHO/Europe published “Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region” . The report incorrectly states that, in Greece: “HIV rates and heroin use have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 per month and faster admission on to drug substitution programmes” .

This statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the report.