WHO and international harm reduction networks hold groundbreaking meeting to develop comprehensive treatment scale up action plan

Melbourne, April 19th, 2004 – At a groundbreaking meeting to be held this week in Melbourne, WHO and the world’s leading harm reduction networks from East and Central Europe, Asia and Latin America are meeting to develop for the first time concrete strategies for delivering antiretroviral (ARV) treatment to injecting drug users (IDU).

Members of harm reduction networks are key to scaling up ARV treatment in communities
© S.Noorani / UNAIDS

Scaling up treatment for vulnerable groups such as sex workers, men having sex with men and injecting drug users, is a key component of the WHO strategy to help reach the global target of treating three million HIV infected people with ARV by 2005. Harm reduction services, including needle-syringe exchange and drug dependence treatment, are key entry points for scaling up ARV treatment.

“There is no excuse for excluding drug users from receiving life-saving drugs. Injecting drug use networks have as much of a role to play in peer support and treatment adherence as do medical officers,” said Dr Andrew Ball, a WHO leading expert on HIV and injecting drug use, who will be meeting with the networks at the 15th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm taking place in Melbourne 20-25 April.

Although WHO and the harm reduction networks have been working together for over ten years on improving HIV prevention programmes, this is the first time they will focus on how to scale up comprehensive HIV services – including needle-syringe exchange, drug substitution therapy (e.g. methadone etc) and ARV treatment. The initiative will involve using peer support as part of the programme to not only deliver HIV prevention but also to deliver HIV treatment and care.

In some countries over 80% of people living with HIV are injecting drug users
© Andrew MacColl / IFRC

In a range of countries, overwhelming amounts of people needing antiretroviral treatment are IDU. In Vietnam and Iran, some 50 – 60% of AIDS cases are among injecting drug users and in Russia the figures rise to over 80%.

The harm reduction networks of Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America cover countries with the highest rates of injecting drug use among the general population. In some cities within these countries, over 80% of IDU are infected with HIV. The networks represent some hundreds of organisations including NGOs and community-based organisations that deliver services for drug users.

“Scaling up treatment among injecting drug users is essential to fight HIV and to help stop discrimination among this vulnerable group. To really be effective ARV treatment must be coupled with effective substitution programs like methadone and needle exchange,” said Anya Sarang, Co-ordinator from the Central and Eastern European Harm Reduction Network.

Past and present methadone and needle syringe programmes run by harm-reduction networks member organisations have proven to be among the most effective prevention strategies available today. These same networks and their member organisations can also can play a key role in HIV treatment and care. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that drug users cannot effectively take ARV treatment or effectively protect themselves and their sexual and drug using partners.

Needle exchange and methadone programmes are some of the most effective prevention strategies available
© Andrew MacColl / IFRC

Injecting drug users face discrimination and marginalisation at many levels, including access to ARV treatment. Where injecting drug use is a criminal offence, as is the case in many countries, drug users have even more limited or no access to prevention and treatment services.

In all countries, a clear and equitable public health approach is needed to ensure that all vulnerable populations are given access to effective HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

For further information please contact:
Dr. Andrew Ball at the conference in Melbourne
Mobile/cell tel: 00 41 79 467 1409
Or in Geneva:
Tunga Namjilsuren tel: 00 41 22 791 1073