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Afghan Red Crescent, Italian Red Cross and ICOS launch drug treatment initiative in Kabul

Afghan Red Crescent, Italian Red Cross and ICOS launch drug treatment initiative in Kabul 18 September 2006

“We will face an imminent HIV/AIDS epidemic in Afghanistan if drug use and addiction become a forgotten agenda,” Italian Red Cross President warns

New Kabul drug addiction treatment centre to be based on successful model in Rome
ROME– A drug treatment initiative for Afghanistan was jointly launched today by the Italian Red Cross, Afghan Red Crescent and ICOS’s Afghan agency, ICOS Afghanistan, to address the country’s growing drug problem – which could be the source of a deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country in coming years if it is not tackled urgently.

A recent UN report estimates that the total number of drug users in Afghanistan has now reached 920, 000 – almost 4% of the total population. There has been an influx of returning refugees from neighbouring countries, Pakistan and Iran, where levels of drug use have soared in recent years.

“Many of these returnees are now injecting heroin, and suffer from severe addiction problems,” said Emmanuel Reinert, Executive Director of ICOS. “Historically, Afghanistan has neither a tradition of heroin use, nor of injection as the means of administration for drugs.”

Aside the problems associated with addiction, injecting drug use represents an important HIV threat.

“Needle-sharing during drug injection is the surest way of transmitting the HIV virus,” said Dr Massimo Barra, President of the Italian Red Cross. “There is a desperate need for addiction treatment in Afghanistan if we want to forestall the imminent HIV crisis. The Red Cross has a special humanitarian mission to care for the most vulnerable groups, and Afghanistan, as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world deserves our full attention.”

ICOS field workers found evidence of growing levels of heroin injection in Kabul, Herat, Lashkar Gar (Helmand) and Kandahar city. These urban areas where returning refugees seek work could be the breeding ground for an AIDS epidemic in Afghanistan.

“If Afghanistan could prevent its looming AIDS crisis, it would be a groundbreaking example of stopping an AIDS epidemic before it starts,” said Emmanuel Reinert.

Afghanistan is an HIV time-bomb

Lessons can be learned about preempting this crisis from neighbouring countries: Iran has experienced a sharp rise in injection drug use in recent years with HIV infections increasing 10 fold between 1999 and 2005, with drug users making up the large majority of new infections. In Uzbekistan, intravenous drug use has increased almost 10 fold in the last ten years, which has led to a 200 fold increase in HIV/Aids cases.

“Afghanistan is an HIV/AIDS time-bomb,” said Ms Fatima Gailani, President of the Afghan Red Crescent. “If we act quickly we can stop an HIV/AIDS crisis happening in Afghanistan. If we don’t act, the results could be catastrophic – we will be facing a widespread epidemic

The new treatment centre will be in the wing of the Red Crescent hospital already operational in Kabul. The treatment initiative will be based on the Villa Maraini drug treatment centre, founded by Dr Barra in Rome thirty years ago. This initiative will complement other drug-user services already operational in Kabul and is designed to help the Afghan government and the United Nations to meet this growing challenge.

“It is also a particularly good example of positive collaboration between Europe and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” said E.Reinert.

A team from the Red Crescent hospital will visit Villa Maraini to receive their initial training. Following this, a team from Villa Maraini will visit Kabul to help shape the Kabul initiative to fit their needs.

Stigma kills in Afghanistan: inadequate treatment facilities

“We must not forget or stigmatise drug users in Afghanistan,” warned Barra. “Compassion is the first effective treatment step in the fight against drug addiction. At Villa Maraini we try to understand people and help them to cope with the many difficulties that life presents. This understanding in turn helps them to cope better in their lives and ideally to stop relying on drugs for the comfort they need.”

Simple measures, such as clean needle exchange and substitution treatment are also effective very low-cost ways used at Villa Maraini to combat the current drug problem in terms of arresting the spread of the deadly HIV virus.

“We hope that the treatment centre will be the impetus needed for further projects in Kabul and all over Afghanistan,” said Reinert. “If Afghanistan is to thwart the looming threat of an HIV pandemic, treatment initiatives and a prevention campaign are urgently needed.”

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