Needles to be distributed to injecting drug users

Kenya has for a long time had inadequate harm reduction programs despite the fact that more and more people in Kenya are taking drugs. A paper published in 2005 in the Harm Reduction Journal, ‘ The rise of injecting drug use in east Africa: a case study from Kenya’ has some alarming statistics that have become even more alarming thanks to the lack of harm reduction measures.

In the paper they found that out of the drug users interviewed 52.5% were HIV positive while other studies have found that HIV prevalence among drug users in Kenya is between 22.9% to 50%.  The reason for such as a high number of HIV positive drug users in Kenya has been at least partly down to the fact that in the past Kenya has lacked any credible harm reduction program.

Up until 2010 injecting drug use was treated as a criminal matter rather than a public health issue. There were only a couple of pilot needle exchange programs in Kenya funded entirely by private money and run by charities who openly admitted they were stretch to the limit. Pharmacies did sell syringes but according to several reports many pharmacists refused to sell syringes to people who are suspected of injecting drugs due to injecting drug use being treated as a criminal offence.

Recently the Kenyan government has been moving to a more positive approach to harm reduction.  On the 5th of June the Kenyan government announced it would be distributing free syringes to more than 50,000 IDU’s across the country. The government intends to distribute over eight million syringes, encourage HIV testing and provide medication as well as condoms.

Drugs in general is still a taboo subject in Kenya and while this is a positive step it is not certain whether the government will be able to go ahead with its plans. The Coast Community Anti-Drugs Coalition has threatened legal action while religious leaders are urging the government to use that money for drug rehabilitation rather than a syringe exchange programs.

The critics of a syringe exchange program in Kenya seem to be unaware of how successful syringe exchange programs can be and have been proven to be in other countries across the world.  A paper in the Lancet in 2005 found that US cities with syringe exchange programs had a 5.8% decrease in HIV infections per year compared to the national average of an increase of 5.9%.

Earlier this year a delegation from Kenya composed of civil society and government representatives flew to Mauritius to learn about needle exchanges and other harm reduction programs for drug users. The Kenyan government also announced that more money from the Global Fund’s round 10 of funding was being released for use in harm reduction measures.

Global Fund Kenya Coordinating Mechanism Secretariat Coordinator Peter Cherutich said that if the pilot program is successful then “If it is feasible, it’s practical that we can provide needles through the exchange programmes then we will be asking for more resources from other partners to make sure that we do that and expand work on injecting drug users”.

It’s great to see the Kenyan government taking a more positive approach to harm reduction. There is still a lot to be done opiate substitution is still banned in Kenya and whilst this planned needle exchange program is a step forward many IDU’s will still be unable to access to syringe exchanges.