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HIV rates soar as injecting drug users left behind in fight against AIDS

HIV rates soar as injecting drug users left behind in fight against AIDS 11 August 2006

Helping injecting drug users could reverse spread of deadly disease

“These Centres Save Lives and are cost-effective” says think tank director
LONDON– HIV infection rates will continue to soar throughout the world unless urgent attention is given to injecting drug users, ICOS, an international security and development think tank, warned on the occasion of the XVI International AIDS Conference, held in Toronto, Canada.

ICOS said it was vital for governments to adopt a humanitarian, public health approach in order to curtail the spread of the deadly disease.

“It is crucial that drug users are not left behind in the fight against AIDS,” said Emmanuel Reinert, Executive Director of ICOS. “People will continue to be infected through injecting drug use by sharing infected equipment. Simple and cost-effective policy measures such as clean needle exchange and substitution treatment can slow down the spread of HIV, but governments are not implementing them for political reasons. ”

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), there were 38.6 million people living with HIV in 2005, an increase of 2.4 million people since 2003. New infections rose from 3.9 million in 2003 to 4.1 million in 2005. The largest rise was seen in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with 220,000 new infections in 2005, a 73% increase since 2003.

An average of one third of new infections occurs through injecting drug use, accounting for as much as 80% of all HIV cases in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Sub-Saharan Africa – where the spread of HIV has until recently been caused chiefly by unprotected sex – there has been a significant increase in the spread of HIV through injecting drug use.

The spread of the disease is also encouraged by the overlap occurring between injecting drug use and paid and/or unprotected sex. Recent years have seen an important rise in sexual transmissions, because drug users are getting older and more sexually active. Studies have shown that up to 80% of male injecting drug users regularly have unprotected sex.

“Drug users constitute not only a very vulnerable group, but a key group in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” Reinert said. “By giving injecting drug users increased access to preventative public health treatments, we could not only slow down the spread of HIV, but actually reverse it.”

The think tank said that the current drug policy model is a major obstacle to reducing the growing instances of HIV/AIDS infection in the world. The current approach does not include realistic – and often very simple and cheap – preventive public health measures that could save millions of lives.

“Adopting a public health approach to drug use and HIV/AIDS is not just about the users, it is about the population as a whole,” Reinert said. “The world must seize this opportunity presented by the Toronto Conference to address the issue in an effective, humanitarian way. The governments owe it to their citizens to do everything possible to fight this epidemic.”

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