Injection Drug Use Up, AIDS Awareness Low in Pakistan
Despite the three million "habitual drug users" in Pakistan, AIDS is "relatively unknown" in the South Asian country, the Washington Post reports. According to a 1999 United Nations Drug Control Program study, injecting pharmaceutical drugs, such as painkillers and tranquilizers, is becoming the "preferred method of substance abuse" in Pakistan, with the low price and fast high of injectables pushing them above the "traditional culture of smoking and inhaling heroin." While approximately 1.5 million Pakistanis are addicted to heroin, the United Nations suggests that increased intravenous drug use is a "warning sign of the potential for an epidemic of HIV infection" in the country. A recent study of 200 injecting addicts by the Nai Zindagi (New Life) drop-in needle exchange center revealed that none were HIV-positive, but "an alarming 89%" had hepatitis C. While Pakistan has "worked hard" to curb opium poppy (from which heroin is made) import from neighboring Afghanistan, the Pakistani government has "done far too little to treat addicts and educate the public about the interlinked dangers of drugs and AIDS. "We still have a window of opportunity to reach people, but we have to act fast before Pakistan becomes like Burma, Vietnam, India and other countries where AIDS is growing rapidly," Nai Zindagi Director Tariq Zafar said. Nai Zindagi is one of the 73 drug treatment centers in Pakistan, and offers its 75 daily drop-in clients clean needles, treatment for addiction, education on personal hygiene and the "importance of using condoms" and vocational training. According to Mohammed Aziz Kahn, antinarcotics official at the Interior Ministry, "Rehabilitation and reducing demand have been our areas of tremendous weakness. Now we see AIDS coming, and we know we won't be immune if we have a lot of intravenous users." Nai Zindagi staff member Jawad Akhtar said, "We don't preach, we just make them aware. We tell them, if they want to shoot drugs, don't take the extra risk. If they start keeping needles for their own use, that's a big change in itself" (Constable, Washington Post, 11/12).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.