Action to reduce the harm associated with injecting drug use is a proven success and governments should adopt a more informed approach to the issue, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said today. “Current attitudes towards injecting drug users are directly impeding efforts to prevent the spread of HIV,” the Federation’s president, Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro, said as the 15th International AIDS Conference continues in Bangkok.
Of an estimated 12 million injecting drug users around the world, up to 3 million are thought to be HIV-positive, meaning that 10 per cent of global HIV infections are due to injecting drug use. The Federation believes that marginalising injecting drug users and stigmatising them as a social scourge only serves to propagate the spread of HIV, and has therefore supported the many national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that run harm reduction programmes. These include syringe exchanges, condom distributions, psychological support, housing assistance and information sharing.
“Experience indicates that harm reduction programmes are the most effective way of significantly reducing HIV infection rates amongst injecting drug users while not increasing drug use. Both compassion and scientific evidence argue in favour of putting an end to the systematic discrimination against this high-risk group by governments and societies around the world,” Suárez del Toro says. “Routine harassment, violence, stigmatisation and social exclusion are driving people who use drugs further underground and reinforcing unsafe practises. It’s creating a public health disaster.”
Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in collaboration with partner organisations, have implemented numerous harm reduction programmes with great success. The Italian Red Cross has been providing care and treatment to drug users through its Villa Maraini Foundation since 1976, bringing the police on board to advocate more humane treatment of drug users. The Foundation is now beginning to train personnel from 15 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, while similar schemes have been launched in South East Asia as well.
In Croatia, the Red Cross started three syringe exchange programmes in 1998, accompanied by distributions of condoms and information. One of the main activities is secondary distribution, whereby clients at drug exchange points further distribute clean syringes to other injecting drug users.
“Young people, gay men and sex workers have all proved to be effective peer educators within their own communities. The work we have done in Croatia shows that drug users can be just as interested in volunteering to prevent the spread of HIV,” says Bernard Gardiner, manager of the Federation’s Global HIV / AIDS programme, “This enables the Red Cross Red Crescent to effectively reach into the shadows and protect life.”