Feature story

Explaining harm reduction with hard hats, seatbelts and sunscreen

23 June 2017

Fastening a seatbelt when driving, wearing a hard hat on a construction site and slapping on sunscreen when out in the sun all lessen potential harms from the risks being taken. This is how the Harm Reduction Action Center (HRAC), based on Colorado, United States of America, introduces the principles of harm reduction for drug use in a video entitled Harm Reduction 101.

The video—a stick-figure animation—explains that 47 000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014. According to StoptheClockColorado.org, every 9 hours and 24 minutes someone dies from a drug overdose in Colorado—such deaths are preventable with harm reduction. Harm reduction includes linking people to health services, giving people access to naloxone—a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose—and making sterile needles and syringes available to prevent the spread of HIV and viral hepatitis.

“Harm reduction keeps people alive, that is the nature of the business we are in,” said Lisa Raville, Executive Director of HRAC, which has provided emergency and health services to injecting drug users in Colorado since 2002. HRAC offers sterile syringes, proper syringe disposal and access to HIV testing, as well as health education classes, street outreach and referrals to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The video, Ms Raville explains, allows people to understand the framework and the logical next step, which is installing supervised injection facilities. The video notes that in the 102 supervised injection facilities across the world, there has yet to be a single fatal overdose.

Matt Slaby and the creative agency Luceo produced the video with the aim of making a complex issue accessible to all. “Harm reduction has struggled with normalization and has been misrepresented for decades, so we pointed to other things that have come to be the norm in our society, like seatbelts, designated drivers and hard hats,” Mr Slaby said.

“Our aim is to reduce the negative impact of years of archaic drug policy, because jailing and repression only drives drug use underground, increases overdoses and leads to the spread of HIV,” Mr Slaby added.

Millions of people who use drugs continue to be criminalized and marginalized in the United States and other countries. Despite this, levels of drug use have remained unchanged. However, countries that have moved away from punitive laws and policies against drug users and have increased investment in harm reduction have seen a drop in new HIV infections and improved health outcomes. These policies have lowered levels of drug-related crime and reduced pressure on the health-care and criminal justice systems.

Harm reduction is cost-effective. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, the lifetime cost of medical care for each new HIV infection is more than US$ 400 000, but if the same amount of money was spent on needle–syringe exchange programmes at least 30 new HIV infections would be prevented.

UNAIDS believes that the world cannot continue to ignore the evidence. Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, said, “We must reduce the impact of HIV and other harms related to drug use and adopt a new course of action—to treat people who use drugs with dignity and respect and to provide them with equal access to health and social services.”

UNAIDS calls for the global adoption of a people-centred, public health and human rights-based approach to drug use. Reducing the harms of drug use will contribute to the end of the AIDS epidemic and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

HARM REDUCTION 101 from LUCEO on Vimeo.