By Sadia Kaenzig at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 55th Session, 16 March 2012
If we go in search of those left in the shadows, we will find someone somewhere in a basement room with a needle and a spoon, trying to dull their pain. There are an estimated 11 to 21 million people around the world who inject drugs, and three million of them living with HIV. They are living underground for fear of being imprisoned, fined or discriminated against; shunned by both family and society, and deprived of access to health services.
Drug use has grown in recent years and is now a trend on every continent. When injecting drug use is combined with selling sex to pay for drug habits, it creates an environment that significantly increases the likelihood of spreading diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis C and others.
This is the topic of the discussion that the IFRC Goodwill Ambassador Gerry Elsdon moderated and enriched with her own personal experience. She said: “I have survived tuberculosis, but sadly had to face stigma and discrimination. I fell from glory to oblivion, but my determination and will brought me back to the light. I can only imagine the situation for those drug users who are worse off than I was, which is a good enough reason to motivate me to talk on their behalf.”
Mariam N. Musa, from the Kenya Red Cross Society, gave a presentation on her own National Society’s efforts to deal with the problems that arose during a crackdown on druglords by authorities in early 2011. During this time, she said, many users suffered acute withdrawal symptoms and needed support, especially as a significant number had other health issues with which to contend. “What is alarming is that two thirds of female heroin users in the Kenya’s coastal areas are infected with HIV due to unsafe sex practices,” she said. “If we add the fact that there are hardly any rehabilitation facilities for these women – although they have special needs linked to reproductive health or teenage pregnancies – it is just a time bomb waiting to happen unless we deal with it within harm reduction programmes.” As a result, and upon request from national authorities, the Red Cross provided relevant emergency assistance, checking and treating drug users and helping them stay out of harm’s way.
“What we ask for is unconditioned measures to protect health and reduce the consequences of drug use. We join the Red Cross Red Crescent call to national health authorities to implement a comprehensive package of nine interventions for harm reduction, as a one-stop- service model that include needle and syringes exchanges and substitution therapy. It is nothing less than what is expected for any other disease,” said Dr Gilberto Gerra, Chief of Drug Prevention and Health at the UNODC.
Dr Lasha Goguadze said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) commended the commitment made by the 53 member States to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), including on the treatment, rehabilitation and social reintegration of drug-dependent prisoners; treatment as an alternative to incarceration; and preventing death from overdose. “We call upon key stakeholders and donors to exert all possible efforts to gather knowledge on the scale of drug use epidemic at country level and decide on the proper response accordingly,” he said. “Criminalization, discrimination and stigmatization are not such responses. Cold turkey methods of detoxification can only be potentially life threatening. Governments should recognize once and for all that a humanitarian drug policy works”.