Governments need to stop treating people who are at high risk from HIV/AIDS as "social evils" and urgently address the stigma, discrimination and marginalization of these groups if global efforts to combat the disease are to be achievable, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The call comes on the eve of the 14th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, which runs between 6-10 April. The conference, of which the International Federation is a co-host, will address, among other issues, the negative impact of "social evil" policies on preventing HIV infection. Among the groups generally targeted as a social scourge, are injecting drug users and commercial sex workers.
"We need greater recognition world-wide of the fact that by ostracising and marginalizing groups of people, they are made especially vulnerable to disease. We know that by being singled out as deserving punishment, the unsafe practices of injecting drug users are being driven underground, resulting in a public health disaster," said Massimo Barra, founder of an Italian Red Cross foundation that assists injecting drug users and board member of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Southern Europe and communities in North and South America and Australia, have previously experienced explosions in HIV epidemics through the use of shared injecting equipment. Eastern Europe and parts of Asia in particular, are today witnessing alarming rates of HIV infection through shared injecting drug equipment. In Eastern Europe, which has the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world, HIV rates have soared by 1300 per cent since 1996 while in Russia, up to 90 per cent of registered infections have been attributed to the use of shared injecting equipment.
"The only way to reverse this trend is for governments to implement policies that see a deliberate shift from social exclusion to social inclusion of injecting drug users. Reach out to them and make their practices safe. Providing clean needles is a start," added Barra.
Studies show that needle exchange programmes have reduced high-risk behaviour among injecting drug users by as much as 80 per cent, with an estimated 30 per cent or more reduction in HIV infection rates.
"There is clear scientific evidence that needle exchange programmes work. They help contain the HIV/AIDS pandemic and in a very cost effective way. Evidence is also clear that these programmes do not promote drug use. On the contrary, they are associated with decreased drug use," said Bernard Gardiner, head of the International Federation's HIV/AIDS unit.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent is already implementing such programmes in several countries, including Italy, Croatia, Latvia, Portugal and Spain in collaboration with governments or other organisations, while the Vietnamese and Chinese Red Cross have begun to include injecting drug users in their HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. For further information, or to set up interviews, please contact:
In Chiang Mai,
Omar Valdimarsson, Regional Information Delegate Tel: + 66 1 823 9218
Jemini Pandya, Press Officer Tel: + 41 22 730 4570 / + 41 79 217 3374
Media Service Duty Phone Tel: + 41 79 416 38 81