Taiwan Harm Reduction Program for IDUs Praised at International Conference
Taiwan's harm reduction program for injection drug users -- which has reduced the number of new HIV cases among the group by about 50% over a three-year period -- recently received praise at the International Harm Reduction Association's 20th International Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, Inter Press Service reports. According to Inter Press Service, Taiwan's HIV incidence declined to 1,752 new cases in 2008, compared with more than 3,300 in 2005 -- nearly double the number recorded in 2004. Sheng Mou Hu, the country's health minister at the time, said the success in reducing the number of new HIV cases can be attributed to the approach that "harm reduction should be based on human rights." The program was launched in 2006 and includes elements like enhanced screening and monitoring of HIV-positive IDUs, a needle-exchange program and methadone replacement initiatives. As a result, IDUs in Taiwan are presented to the public as "patients" who required medical attention rather than criminals, Inter Press Service reports.
Ton Smits, executive director of the Asian Harm Reduction Network, said, "No other country in Asia can match Taiwan's achievement in launching and sustaining this harm reduction program." He said that in most Asian countries, policies relating to drug control "are in direct conflict with HIV-related policy, undermining harm reduction programs in the region." He also noted that 3% of IDUs in Southeast Asia have access to harm reduction services and that such programs are "facing a financial crisis," with a 90% resource gap in 2009. According to Gerry Stimson, executive director of IHRA, 2% to 3% of all available resources for HIV/AIDS is spent on harm reduction strategies. Stimson said, "If we are serious about reducing HIV infection amongst IDUs, then we are going to need between $2 billion and $3 billion this year and the next."
According to Inter Press Service, some encouraging signs have been seen in other Asian countries -- such as China, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam -- that are beginning programs similar to Taiwan's that treat IDUs through public health approaches rather than law enforcement measures. IDUs still are listed as one of the most vulnerable groups in the region, Inter Press Service reports. According to IHRA, there are close to 16 million IDUs in 158 countries worldwide. Information released at the conference said that some estimates place the number of HIV-positive IDUs at three million, while others place it at more than 6.6 million (Macan-Markar, Inter Press Service, 4/25).