HIV and injecting drug use: bold and humane response needed from governments

Published: 11 April 2011

Globally, one in ten people living with HIV are people who inject drugs. For Europe and central Asia that ratio is every eight in ten.

Stopping the spread of HIV by implementing harm reduction measures is crucial to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. During the 22nd International Harm Reduction Conference in Beirut, held between 3 and 7 April, governments and key stakeholders were both encouraged and challenged to adopt harm reduction programmes. Programmes that target injecting drug users need to be accessible to all and expanded to include the use of condoms, sterile injecting equipment and harm-reduction activities related to drug use.

As Matthias Schmale, Under Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says: “We urge all concerned, including public health officials, not to ignore the irrefutable evidence that to be successful in containing HIV, health services must leave out morality and concentrate on providing programmes that combine free exchange of sterile needles, drug substitution therapy, addiction counselling, as well as other forms of health and social support.”

The dire and vulnerable situation faced by injecting drug users leads the IFRC to sign the 2011 Beirut Declaration – – in the call for global action. In summary, the Beirut Declaration draws attention to the gravity of the situation worldwide and makes a clear call for action.
Of the 33.3 million people living with HIV globally, an estimated 3 million are people who inject drugs. They account for 30 per cent of HIV infections outside sub-Saharan Africa, and up to 80 per cent of infections in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The 2001 UNGASS Declaration of Commitment and the 2006 Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS established time-bound targets to be met and reported on by countries worldwide. The commitments aimed at addressing the needs of people who inject drugs, their families and the communities in which they live through an “urgent, coordinated and sustained response”. These commitments have not been met.

The mobilization of an “intensified, much more urgent and comprehensive response” to HIV for people who inject drugs requires strong global leadership, concrete national policies and adequate funds to implement and scale up evidence-based services. The targets and commitments set in the 2006 Political Declaration must be met to address the needs of, and to fulfil the human rights of, people who inject drugs living with and at risk of HIV.
At the 2011 United Nations High Level Meeting (UNGASS) on HIV and AIDS, the signatories called for:
1. Acknowledgement that people who use drugs have not reached universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.
2. Renewed commitment and action toward the goal of universal access to comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for people who inject drugs.
3. Commitment to removing legal and policy barriers to achieving the aims above, particularly a reorientation of punitive drug policies toward evidence- and human rights-based approaches.

It is time for action on HIV-related harm reduction. It is time for accountability for the rights of people who inject drugs.

Between 21 and 25 March 2011, the IFRC – together with the Austrian Red Cross – also took part in the 54th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna with an important event on the role of grassroots organizations in creating healthier and safer environment for drug users with the participation of key stakeholders from policy-makers to donors and civil society. The IFRC will repeat this call for action at the UNGASS meeting in New York in June 2011.

In line with the IFRC’sadvocacy report on harm reduction, Out of harm’s way, we seize this opportunity to remind governments and all our stakeholders that we believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, but also that harm reduction is the only way we can stop the spread of HIV among this most marginalized population.
For more information or for interviews, please contact:

In Geneva:
Sadia Kaenzig, Senior adviser, external and public communications, Tel. +41 79 217 3386,