China case study: harm reduction

Published: 1 December 2010 12:30 CET

By Zhang Ran, Red Cross Society of China: Harm Reduction Project

The province of Yunnan lies huddled in the south-west border area in China, curved up against Vietnam, Laos and Burma, and linked to Thailand and Cambodia via the Mekong River (otherwise known as Lancang River in China). Owing to its location near “The Golden Triangle”, Yunnan’s population is ‘drowning’ in heroin and other illicit drugs.

In 1989, the first HIV infection case was reported among injecting drug users living along the borderlands. By the end of 2005, authorities reported that 40,157 citizens were living with HIV while 1,541 had already died. Experts estimate that the actual number of those individuals living with HIV has already exceeded 80,000. Province-wide, all 16 regions are affected, three of which have entered into the ‘highly prevalent’ stage.

In Yunnan, the Red Cross Society of China relies on volunteers to reach out to communities and families. HomeAIDS, a counselling service centre, plays a key role in preventing the transmission of HIV. A cooperative effort involving the Yunnan Red Cross branch and the Hong Kong and Macao Salvation Army, the centre works with HIV and AIDS experts, other NGO staff, medical workers, police officers, young volunteers, journalists, taxi drivers, and hotel employees.

The aim is to provide harm reduction services that save lives and slow the transmission of HIV and other bloodborne and sexually-transmitted infections. In four years, HomeAIDS has already established two locations and eleven volunteer branches and has mobilized and deployed more than 800 volunteers. It raises awareness, supports communities, offers training, advocates for policy change, and builds an effective and sustainable model of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. Key to this is providing a ‘safe place’ for injecting drug users who are living with HIV. In order to do so HomeAIDS places a special emphasis on peer education, which supports injecting drug users, commercial sex workers and other at-risk groups to support themselves. In addition to medical referrals for treatment and care, HomeAIDS offers participants a wide array of skills building and occupational training that includes peer education, elementary first aid, computer, electronics, knitting and cosmetology.