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Drug Policies Could Condemn Millions to HIV
The International HIV Alliance
March 4, 2009


As governments meet next week in Vienna (11-12 March 2009) to set international drug policy for the next 10 years the International HIV/AIDS Alliance is concerned that HIV prevention strategies are being seriously undermined by conflicting policy approaches.

"We are very concerned. There is an opportunity here to tackle HIV rates amongst injecting drug users but because of a conflict in policy public health is being put at risk.

"UNAIDS advocates for harm reduction strategies such as needle exchange schemes to prevent the spread of HIV. But some governments are blocking a more progressive approach and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) despite endorsing harm reduction does not actively support it, claiming it perpetuates drug use," said Susie McLean, senior advisor on HIV and drug policy at the Alliance.

"This fundamental split in the policy approach is hampering efforts to contain the spread of HIV. All the available evidence points to the fact that harm reduction strategies do not increase drug use."

In 2008 around 3 million of the nearly 16 million people who inject drugs were estimated to be HIV positive. Inadequate policy frameworks are the main reason that HIV prevention programmes still fail to reach most injecting drug users.

The Alliance supports some unique HIV prevention programmes around the world including Ukraine, India and Cambodia that have former and current drug users at the heart of tackling HIV amongst their community.

Harm reduction strategies such as providing clean needles and/or substitution therapies can reduce rates of HIV infection. Governments like the UK that introduced needle exchanges in the 1980s have seen the epidemic among drug users remain low. The UK Government is a champion of harm reduction in Europe and with the USA.

Ishwar Haobam is from SASO, an organisation in Manipur, India, working with the Alliance. SASO is made up of drug users and ex-drug users who are providing HIV prevention services, home detox services and support for women and young people vulnerable to HIV.

"Manipur has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in India. Among injecting drug users the rate went from zero to a peak of almost 80% by 1997. Putting HIV prevention efforts in place we saw the rate drop to around 20% (2006)," explains Ishwar.

"Harm reduction groups from India to USA are harassed by the police at needle exchange sites and drug users are arrested attempting to access clean syringes. This simply makes users more likely to share needles. We need an environment that ensures that harm reduction strategies are not compromised and people can receive all the support they need to prevent themselves from contracting HIV and passing it to others," he said.

Notes

- HIV rates are just 1.1% in England and Wales among injecting drug users. In the USA where the federal government has not supported harm reduction approaches there is an estimated rate of 16%.

- 33 million people worldwide are estimated to be living with HIV.

- The International HIV/AIDS Alliance (the Alliance) is a global partnership of nationally-based organisations working to support communities to reduce the spread of HIV and meet the challenge of AIDS.

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