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Colombia’s Third Largest City Rolls Out Needle Exchange Program

Colombia's third largest city, Cali, recently rolled out a pilot needle and syringe program (NSP) in a rare step forward for harm reduction for Latin America. 

Starting at the beginning of this year and running for three months, the project aims to gather more information on drug use patterns while tackling the spread of blood-borne viruses among injecting drug users (IDUs). El Pais reported that the program is being delivered by Cambie mobile care units (part of Acción Técnica Social) after an agreement was struck with the municipal government. Eventually, the NSP will become static so that the service can offer social and psychological support, too.

According to the municipal health secretary, the program began by serving around 60 people, though has capacity to serve 100-150 clients. It will cost approximately COP$200 million ($61,000 USD) to deliver over the pilot period. 

Cambie has been operating programs previously in the capital Bogota, and Pereira, after concerns were raised about needle sharing among IDUs in those areas. Cali came under the media spotlight last year due to this practice, which sparked calls for NSPs to be put in place. 

National HIV prevalence rates in injecting populations sit at around 2 percent, four times the 2012 national average of 0.5 percent. Furthermore, the rate among IDUs has considerable regional variance, with the HIV prevalence in this population estimated to be as high as 9 percent in the border department of Cucuta. This says nothing of hepatitis C rates among IDUs, for which there are no solid estimates that are currently available.

The launch of another NSP pilot project in Colombia puts the country at the forefront of harm reduction in a region that has typically been resistant to such practices; Colombia is only the second country in Latin America to have both NSP and opioid substitution therapy (OST), sitting alongside Mexico, according to Harm Reduction International. Still, far more will need to be done in the future in Colombia to cement its place as a regional leader, with programs such as these moving out of pilot phases to become permanent fixtures. 

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