Red Cross and Red Crescent Report: Drug Policy Fails HIV Patients

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December 1st is World Aids Day. A time to talk to talk about drugs and drug treatment. Why? A report published by the International Federation of the Red Cross last week goes some way to explain. Download the full report here.

“A public health emergency."

- According to the report, approximately a fifth of drug users -3 million people - are now living with HIV, but most governments deny them harm reduction services, such as needle exchanges, substitution therapies or addiction counselling. Bad policy violates the human rights of drug users and hampers HIV prevention efforts.

-In the battle against AIDS, condoms maybe a cheap and efficient way of preventing infection, but with an epidemic of intravenous drug use around the globe, harm reduction treatment should offer a variety of services that help people restore people's lives in addition to providing a benefit to public health, including provision of condoms.

-Research shows that prevention services, for example in prison, reduce the likelihood of HIV being transmitted upon release of the prisoner.

The link between injecting drug use and the spread of HIV is well documented, as is that between social attitudes and the effectiveness of treatment.

“Injecting drug users account for more than 60 per cent of all HIV infections in Belarus, Georgia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. ”

In fact, “When an HIV-positive injecting drug user shares a needle, transmission is pretty much 'guaranteed'.

Aside from needle sharing being the most effective transmitter of the virus, unsafe drug use can quickly spread the virus to the wider population through prostitution. “In many countries, drug users rely on sex work to support their addiction and ensure basic survival. ” But of course, it's never so simple, and treatment requirements vary from culture to culture. “ In Russia, where substitution treatment is banned, HIV transmission from male injecting drug users to their female sex partners appears to be a major factor behind a spike in the numbers of newly-infected women. ” Women are especially vulnerable as drug users and likely to contract HIV, as they are often second on the needle, victims of violence and abuse, and current treatments often put the onus on women to practise safe sex, increasing the risk of violent abuse.

It may not be surprising then, that carrying the potential to spread disease and commit crimes, drug users are often stigmatised and marginalised by society – but that is precisely the problem.

Yes. Because, as the UK Drug Policy Commission noted last month, “stigmatisation matters. ” If we take a group of vulnerable people such as injecting drug users, refuse them treatment, restrict their movement, criminalise and shun them, as countless governments and societies across the world continue to do, we contribute to the spread of HIV amongst the wider public.

“Stigma associated with both drug use and HIV infection is likely the main reason why policymakers continue to disavow the evidence and oppose harm reduction programming. In all but a handful of nations, injecting drugs is illegal. Public attitudes toward drug users are rarely anything but hostile–not only because users are engaging in an illegal activity but because such behaviour is deemed morally suspect. ”

But the borderless internet provides a chance to share stories of drug use so that we can all recognise drug users as human beings who deserve compassion and human rights. By shifting towards a non-judgemental and evidence based reaction towards drug use, users are encouraged to seek treatment services that quantifiably reduce the spread of HIV infections.

The Red Cross report calls upon governments, policymakers and donors to “move beyond their prejudices” which is exactly what we encourage at Talking Drugs. So, on World Aids Day we should be talking about drug use. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation has called for the decriminalisation of drug users in the interests of public health and human rights.

UNAIDS is using the hashtag #preventionrevolution on Twitter. But actually talking about DRUGS can help break down barriers. Tell stories. Ask questions. Discuss, debate and demand an evidence based drugs policy, human rights for drug users and a compassionate non-judgemental approach to treatment.

“In 2008, only eight percent of opioid users were accessing substitution treatment, and only four percent of injecting drug users living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral therapy. ”

The World AIDS Day website and their AWARE campaign is at www.worldaidsday.org