People who use drugs talk about HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
13 July 2012
The community of people who use drugs called for an urgent shift from prohibitive policies to public health and humane approaches towards people who use drugs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the International AIDS Forum held on 9-10 July, 2012 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Addressing participants through a video message, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé stated, “UNAIDS stands firmly with you to call for the lifting of restrictions on harm reduction and for evidence informed, life-saving interventions to be introduced on an urgent basis.”
Entitled ‘Ensuring That Our Voice Is Heard’, the forum brought together representatives from communities of people who use drugs, civil society, academia and the United Nations to discuss the existing challenges in addressing issues related to drug use and HIV. They also agreed upon and formulated the messages that will be conveyed to their national governments as well as the international community at the forthcoming XIX International AIDS Conference to be held on 22–27 July 2012 in Washington D.C., USA.
The estimated number of adults and children living with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia has tripled since 2001 reaching 1.5 million in 2009. Injecting drug use remains the primary cause of HIV transmission in the region. An estimated 3.7 million people currently inject drugs and roughly one in four of them are believed to be living with HIV in the region.
The main issues of concern expressed by participants included the growing police harassment and abuse suffered by people who use drugs, the existing punitive laws and the low scale of harm reduction services—including opioid substitution therapy and needle-syringe programmes. The high level of stigma and discrimination from health care providers towards people who use drugs continue to prevent them from getting life saving medical care and social support.
“Punitive drug policies and stigmatization deter people who use drugs from accessing HIV prevention and treatment services. If governments and international communities continue to wink at the violations of drug users’ rights in their countries, they won’t be able to take control over the growing HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia,” said Dasha Ocheret, Deputy Director for Policy and Advocacy of the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network, one of the organizers of the Forum.
During a special session devoted to the rights and health of women who use drugs in the region organized by the UNAIDS, participants discussed the particular risks and vulnerabilities faced by women who use drugs. According to Natalia, a participant from Tomsk, Russian Federation, women who use drugs frequently face a double or even triple stigma and discrimination based on their gender, as drug users and due to their HIV status. Many of them are also victims of sexual violence and stigmatized because of their engagement in sex work.
UNAIDS stands firmly with you to call for the lifting of restrictions on harm reduction and for evidence informed, life-saving interventions to be introduced on an urgent basis
UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé
“The role of UNAIDS and other international organizations is to promote the rights of people who use drugs at the highest political level both nationally and globally and to develop evidence-based policies to ensure adequate funding for harm reduction and HIV services,” said Jean-Elie Malkin, UNAIDS Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Opioid substitution therapy is available in all countries of the region, with the exception of the Russian Federation, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. However, participants stressed that the majority of countries have not scaled up opioid substitution therapy beyond pilot projects despite their proven effectiveness.
According to Michel Kazatchkine, member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, “only by breaking the taboo and opening up the debate on harm reduction both globally and nationally we can move the line on this issue. The world is already talking about drugs and drug policies more than ever before, so we should not be discouraged but rather push decision-makers even harder.”
The lack of funding for HIV prevention services for people who use drugs was also highlighted especially since most countries in the region are no longer eligible for the Global Fund grants. The community called for the inclusion of HIV prevention among people who use drugs into the political agenda as an emergency issue that needs significant investments. Otherwise the region will not succeed in its response to the epidemic.
The International Forum consisted of plenary sessions, capacity-building sessions on communication and advocacy, and video documentary sessions where participants recorded short video messages for the delegates of the International AIDS Conference.
The International AIDS Conference is the premier gathering for policy makers, activists, people living with HIV and other individuals committed to ending the AIDS epidemic. The AIDS 2012 program will present new scientific knowledge and offer many opportunities for structured dialogue on the major issues facing the global response to HIV. It is expected to convene more than 20 000 delegates from nearly 200 countries, including 2 000 journalists.