Asian Countries Should Focus on Preventing HIV Among Injection Drug Users, UNAIDS Official Says
Asian countries need to focus their HIV prevention efforts on injection drug users or risk a rapid increase in new cases throughout the region, UNAIDS Asia Pacific Regional Director Prasada Rao said on Monday in an interview from the 18th annual International Harm Reduction Conference, Reuters reports. There are about six million IDUs in Asia, and most new HIV cases are the result of reusing needles, according to Reuters. However, less than one-tenth of Asian IDUs have access to prevention services, according to United Nations data. "If you look at comprehensive interventions, which means giving the option of both needle exchange and drug substitution, I think very few countries are doing it," Rao said. He added that countries should aim to reach at least 80% of IDUs by 2010 and that the goal "requires enormous scale up in terms of resources and also in creating an environment where drug users can come out and access these services." Rao also said that stemming drug use among IDUs will require a "change of attitude and a change of legislation relating to drug use."
Although the global cost of harm-reduction initiatives, such as needle-exchange programs, is estimated at about $200 million annually, the total amount spent is less than $100 million worldwide, according to Rao. "It is a very small amount of money, but even that, governments are still not putting into ideal programs," Rao said. He added that in some countries, officials "think it's not really important" to provide service to IDUs, while in others, officials think IDUs are "not in the mainstream of society," so they can be ignored. In addition, he said that governments are "not sensitive enough to the problem of young people and how they get" involved in drug use. IDUs also can transmit HIV to the general population, so it is vital to reach them, Rao noted. Rao applauded China, which has established needle-exchange and drug-substitution programs, as well as Indonesia and India for their HIV outreach efforts. Meanwhile, he called Thailand a "glaring example" of a country that "has done so well at [HIV] prevention sexually" but has not established effective programs for IDUs. More than 30% of new cases in the country occur among this group, according to Rao (Blanchard, Reuters, 5/14).