Feature story

Increased HIV services for drug users needed

14 November 2006

Increasing access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services for drug users and their partners is crucial to addressing the issue of growing HIV infections related to injecting drug use in the Middle East and North Africa region.

This was the overwhelming conclusion reached by regional representatives from law enforcement agencies, national AIDS programmes, NGOs, researchers, community representatives, people living with HIV and UN organizations who joined at a regional workshop on the issue of HIV and drug use in the region, held in Cairo, Egypt from 5 – 8 November.

Throughout the 3-day discussions, participants from the Arab countries, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan affirmed that drug use is an important risk factor in facilitating spread of HIV that calls for immediate action. Joint efforts of police, national AIDS actors, NGOs, drug users and of people living with HIV were recognized as fundamental elements in the prevention of HIV among drug users and their partners.

While significant efforts are being undertaken in a number of countries to reach out with HIV preventive services to drug users communities, limited capacities coupled with discrimination against drug users hamper implementation of wider-scale programmes.

“From my personal experience and my field work on reducing harm related to drug use, I suggest training more drug users and ex-drug users –to build their skills in order to promote and implement [HIV preventive] programs in the region,” an ex-drug user and outreach worker said in the workshop.

New initiatives for building capacities of civil society actors on implementing harm reduction measures and networking in the region were discussed and examined.

“Participation in this workshop has allowed an exchange of international experiences among NGOs and governments, and a discussion of the strategic approaches to planning at the national level to protect against the harms and risks of drugs and related HIV. It has created cooperation between [national stakeholders]…and encouraged civil society actors to assist and support alternative programs for drug users,” police participants from one of the Gulf countries said.

As part of the workshop, UNAIDS and UNODC launched the finalized Rapid Situation Assessment on Drug Use and HIV in Algeria and Morocco, as well as facilitate consensus on programmatic follow up for all participating countries. WHO and the International Harm Reduction Association launched a project on strengthening the role of civil society in harm reduction for injecting drug users in the Middle East and North Africa.

Although the main mode of HIV transmission in the Middle East and North Africa remains unprotected sexual contact, injecting drug use is an increasingly important factor in the region’s epidemics.

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