Background: During 2011, a dramatic increase (1600%) of reported HIV-1 infections among injecting drug users (IDUs) was noted in Athens, Greece. We herein assess the potential causal pathways associated with this outbreak. Methods: Our study employed high resolution HIV-1 phylogenetic and phylogeographic analyses. We examined also longitudinal data of ecological variables such as the annual growth of gross domestic product (GDP) of Greece in association with HIV-1 and HCV sentinel prevalence in IDUs, unemployment and homelessness rates and HIV transmission networks in Athens IDUs before and during economic recession (2008-2012). Results: IDU isolates sampled in 2011 and 2012 suggested transmission networks in 94.6% and 92.7% of the cases in striking contrast with the sporadic networking (5%) during 1998-2009. The geographic origin of most HIV-1 isolates was consistent with the recently documented migratory waves in Greece. The decline in GDP was inversely correlated with annual prevalence rates of HIV and HCV and with unemployment and homelessness rates in IDUs (all p<0.001). The slope of anti-HCV prevalence in the sentinel populations of IDUs and in "new" drug injectors was found 120 and 1.9-fold (p = 0.007, p = 0.08 respectively) higher in 2008-2012 (economic recession) compared with 2002-2006. The median (25th, 75th) size of transmission networks were 34 (12, 58) and 2 (2, 2) (p = 0.057) in 2008-2012 and 1998-2007, respectively. The coverage of harm reduction services was low throughout the study period. Conclusions: Scaling-up harm reduction services and addressing social and structural factors related to the current economic crisis should be urgently considered in environments where HIV-1 outbreaks may occur.
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