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U.N. announces
Asian initiative to expand HIV programs for IV drug users

U.N. announces
Asian initiative to expand HIV programs for IV drug users

The United Nations announced Tuesday a new initiative to expand HIV prevention programs across Asia for intravenous drug users, whose use of shared needles is one of the major drivers of the disease in the region.

In some countries in the region, IV drug users account for as much as 70% of new HIV infections, and the increased use of heroin in South Asia poses a risk that the disease will spread further, three U.N. agencies said in a joint statement at the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

''The time has come to reach out to injecting drug users to step out of the darkness of stigma together and demand an innovative approach to HIV prevention that upholds their human rights and dignity'', said Prasada Rao, the regional head of UNAIDS.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Rao said that intravenous drug use was the second most common cause of HIV infections in the region, where an estimated 5.4 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

When a disease that can be sexually transmitted, such as AIDS, starts among drug users, it usually leads to an epidemic among a larger heterosexual population three years later, Rao noted. ''The young people who inject drugs--they also engage in multipartner sex, and they get infected and pass on the infection to their wives and girlfriends,'' he said.

According to UNAIDS statistics, countries across the region have reason to worry about the spread of the disease from sharing needles.

-In China, an estimated 44% of the 650,000 people infected with HIV were believed to have contracted it through injecting drugs.

-In Thailand, 3% to 10% of IV drug users are infected each year.

-In Malaysia, the most common risk factor for HIV infection is using dirty needles.

-IV drug use is also a key factor in HIV transmission in Myanmar, Indonesia, and Malaysia as well as in Afghanistan.

The initiative announced Tuesday, a joint effort between UNAIDS, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Health Organization, aims to increase prevention programs by providing IV drug users with clean needles and access to substitute drugs--such as methadone--that are not injected. It will also provide HIV counseling, promote condom use, and increase access to treatment programs. According to the Asian Development Bank, a prevention program targeting intravenous drug users could cost as little as $47 for each life saved.

Shiba Phurailatpam, regional coordinator for the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, said many countries' AIDS policies in relation to drug users were deeply counterproductive.

Clean needles, which could prevent transmission of the disease, are often not readily available, he said. In many places, syringes are considered drug paraphernalia and as illegal as the narcotics themselves, so few drug users risk exposing themselves by getting new ones, Phurailatpam said.

In some countries, such as Thailand, needle exchange programs are carried out by international aid groups because the government refuses to deal with the issue, Phurailatpam said, adding that many drug users are hunted by the police and targeted by vigilante mobs.

Phurailatpam called for countries with HIV epidemics to invite drug users to help them mold their national AIDS policies.

Addressing the conference Tuesday, Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of the Malaysian AIDS Council, said global drug policy, which focuses on arresting and prosecuting drug users, is damaging efforts to fight the epidemic.

She proposed that responsibility for dealing with drug users be transferred from the police to the health system.

The conference gathered about 2,500 government officials, AIDS activists and health professionals from around the region in Colombo for a five-day gathering aimed at tackling the spread of the disease. (AP)

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