HIV consultation to call for urgent action on Asian drug-related epidemic

Photo by Hi yAAvA HiFor the first time in Asia, AIDS experts, parliamentarians, civil society and drug user organisations have gathered together for a consultation on HIV prevention and treatment for drug users.

Organised by the Asian Consortium on Drug Use, HIV, AIDS and Poverty, the consultation is being attended by more than 400 delegates from 27 countries with the aim of addressing the political, legal and social barriers to HIV interventions for injecting drug users (IDUs).

Delegates are also expected to advocate for the types of expanded harm reduction programs promoting drug substitution treatment, needle and syringe exchanges and peer education projects that have proven effective in stemming the spread of HIV.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that 30 percent of all new infections worldwide, excluding in Africa, are associated with injecting drug use. Nearly half of the world's estimated 13 million drug users live in Asia where injecting drug use is a major factor fuelling HIV transmission.

Most of the global supply of opium and heroin is produced in Asia where vulnerable groups who inject drugs form a significant percentage of people engaged in high-risk behaviours such as sharing contaminated injecting equipment and unprotected sex.

Some Asian countries have reported HIV prevalence rates as high as 85 percent among IDUs while others that had previously reported few or no cases of HIV in IDUs have now detected the virus among some users.

"We will address the vulnerability related to drug use and HIV and AIDS affecting millions of people in Asia and the related social hazards including criminalisation, incarceration and their linkages to poverty," said Luke Samson, Co-Chair of the consultation and Executive Director of the New Delhi-based advocacy group SHARAN.

Across the region, the criminalisation of drug use, severe stigma and discrimination and law enforcement practices that marginalise and penalise drug users have driven them underground and deterred them from accessing life-saving HIV prevention and treatment services.

Gary Lewis, Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), stressed at the conference that successful models of community-based HIV prevention through outreach and counselling needed to be adopted if HIV was to be addressed as a social as well as a public health issue.

"In Asia, the need of the hour is to scale-up interventions to reach out to populations at risk and to save lives. We know what to do, but we need to do more of it," Lewis said.

Delegates at the consultation will review the alarming spread of HIV in prison and custodial settings and advocate for reformed legislations, engagement with law enforcement and narcotics agencies and national AIDS policies that allow services to access incarcerated people and those in compulsory rehabilitation programs.

"We must ensure access to prevention and treatment services and protect the rights of the most at risk populations, such as people who inject drugs by involving them and their communities in every stage of the AIDS response," said UNAIDS Asia Pacific Regional Director, Prasada Rao.

The consultation also aims to engage key players from the governmental, corporate and civil society sectors in attempts to define an Asia-specific HIV prevention and treatment strategy in order to achieve universal access to treatment for people injecting drugs.

"Regional collaboration for HIV preventions is the most effective mechanism to combat the growing pandemic. This consultation is a unique opportunity to generate enduring solutions to HIV and AIDS issues affecting drug users across Asia," said Shri Oscar Fernandes, Minister of State for Labour and Employment and Convener Parliamentary Forum on HIV and AIDS.

Bobby Ramakant-CNS