Bridging the Gaps in Clinical Guideline to Care in Pregnancy for Women Using Psychoactive Substances

All the regions of Kyrgyzstan already received the developed clinical guideline

The estimate number of people who use injected drugs (PWID) in Kyrgyzstan is about 25,000 people. Many of these people are women. Such is the data from the research that was conducted within the framework of the Global Fund’s grant in 2013.

Applying recommendations in practice

In 2016, Public Fund (PF) Asteria, a community based organisation that protects rights of women who use drugs in Kyrgyzstan, applied to AFEW-Kyrgyzstan seeking for a help in developing a clinical guideline to care in pregnancy for women who use drugs. Within the framework of the project Bridging the Gaps: health and rights for key populations, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan decided to support this initiative as there were no modern standards for working with women who use drugs in the country before. A working group that included an expert in narcology, an obstetrician-gynecologist, an expert in evidence-based medicine, and a representative of the community of women who use drugs was created. In January 2017, the clinical guideline “Care in pregnancy, childbirth and the puerperium for women who use psychoactive substances” was approved by the order of the Ministry of Health and became mandatory for doctors’ use.

“When the guideline was approved, we realized that it is not enough to simply distribute it among the doctors. It was necessary to organize a comprehensive training for the family doctors, obstetrician-gynecologists and other specialists so that they could not only apply the developed recommendations in practice, but also share their experience with their colleagues,” said Chinara Imankulova, project manager of the Bridging the Gaps: health and rights of key populations at AFEW-Kyrgyzstan.

In April 2017, trainings were organized for the teachers of Kyrgyz State Medical Institute for postgraduate students. The manuals for teachers with presentations have been developed so that in the future trained teachers could deliver reliable information to the course participants. This approach gives an opportunity to train all healthcare professionals in the country and provides them with an access to the protocol.

In August 2017, trainings were offered to obstetrician-gynecologists of the centers of family medicine and obstetrical institutions. During the trainings, specialists got acquainted with the latest research in this field, studied the peculiarities of pregnancy, prenatal and postnatal period of women, who use drugs, as well as ways to avoid or minimize the risks of drug exposure to women and children.

“Two or three years ago, when our pregnant women who use drugs visited doctors, they were afraid that doctors would force them to have an abortion. In September 2017, our client Victoria, who at that time was on methadone therapy, visited the obstetrician-gynecologist. Victoria gave birth to a healthy girl, and doctors treated Victoria and her child very well. Moreover, the doctor even helped Victoria to get methadone so she could spend enough time in the hospital for rehabilitation after the childbirth,” said Tatiana Musagalieva, a representative of PF Asteria.

Women should not be discriminated

During the trainings, 100 specialists who are working in the republic of Kyrgyzstan were trained. Doctors from the regional centers were also invited for the training. It is very important to provide access to quality medical services for women who use drugs in the rural areas. Doctors also learned to get rid of their stigma towards women who use drugs and always treat them with respect. A class on stigma and discrimination was taught by women from the community of drug users. They told the participants of the training their stories, talked about how difficult it was when doctors refused to treat them or insulted them. This part was useful in reducing stigma and discrimination among doctors, in showing them that women who use drugs are just like the others.

“Before the training I met several pregnant women who use drugs. To be honest, I was not sure that they could give birth to healthy children. Having received the clinical protocol, and with the knowledge I have got in the training, I realized that these women should not be discriminated. I learned about scientific recommendations for conducting pregnancy in the situations that cannot do harm to either mother or child. This helped me a lot,” said the participant of the training, obstetrician-gynecologist Kaliyeva Burul.

All the regions of the republic already received the developed clinical guideline. Doctors who have been trained, share their experiences with their colleagues and help women who use drugs to safely plan their pregnancies and give births to healthy children. AFEW-Kyrgyzstan continues to monitor the work of specialists who have been trained, and monitors if all health specialists have access to the guideline. In the future, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan will continue to work on improving the quality of life of people who use drugs, and will monitor the usage of this protocol by doctors.

Spices – New Threat for the Tajik Youth

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Author: Nargis Hamrabaeva, Tajikistan

While several years ago Tajikistan was concerned with young people being into opiates and stronger synthetic drugs, today there are concerns about the new-generation drugs – so-called spices.

Spicy naswar

The official reports of law enforcement agencies fail to contain any data on the seizure of spices. However, a quick survey among the young people showed that those smoking blends have long been popular in the country.

Spices are the smoking blends, which contain dry herbs and roots. The dried components themselves are not dangerous, but to make the smokers feel a more intense euphoria, the producers add cannabinoids, which are strong narcotic substances. 

“For what I know, earlier spices were distributed in the nightclubs, but now they are mostly sold in the internet and through the grapevine. I also heard that sometimes naswar – the type of smokeless tobacco typical for Central Asia, containing tobacco and alkali (hydrated lime), which is popular among many local people – is processed in the same way as the spices,” says Aziz, a student from Dushanbe.

“Rich kids” having fun

Our anonymous respondent who has 20 years of experience working at law enforcement agencies said that it would not be right to say that young people in Tajikistan are addicted to spices, but this threat should not be disregarded.

“Yes, spices can be easily accessed, but their price is higher than the price of marijuana which young people have traditionally been smoking and continue smoking now. After the heroin “rush” at the turn of the century, many people who use drugs have been massively switching to marijuana and opiates. They strongly believe that marijuana is not more harmful than cigarettes,” he says.

According to him, spices are mostly used in nightclubs by those, who have enough money for it – the so-called “rich kids.”

“They think that spices do not cause addiction and that they can quit using them whenever they want as opposed to opiates and heroin,” says the law enforcer.

Spices do not have the euphoric effects they used to

However, Dr. Mahmadrahim Malakhov who studied the sociocultural aspects of the substance use in Tajikistan, says that the dependence develops much quicker when using spices than when using natural marijuana.

Meanwhile, the exact number of people who use drugs in Tajikistan is not known. Doctors say that few people who use drugs seek medical assistance when they want to quit. They are the ones who are included in the official statistics, which shows that there are a little more than 7 thousand people who use drugs in the country.

Last year, Tajik law enforcers seized about 4.5 tons of narcotic drugs, which is 29.8% more than the year before.

“In particular, 110 kg of heroin, 1.2 tons of raw opium, 2.4 tons of hashish and 742 kg of cannabis drugs were seized. The offences of 52 criminal groups consisting of 115 individuals were investigated and terminated, including five organized transnational groups,” said Murtazo Khaidarzoda, Deputy Head of the Drug Control Agency of the Republic of Tajikistan at the press conference.

In Kyrgyzstan, Fines for Drug-Related Offences will Grow 30-Fold

Street lawyers of the Ranar Foundation provide legal counselling to people who use drugs

Author: Olga Ochneva, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has adopted new legislation on drug-related crimes. Amendments have been introduced into a number of national legal codes within the broad judiciary reform in the country. The amendments will come into force starting from 2019. Initiators of the reform declare the ideas of humanisation and decriminalisation, but the practitioners and the community expect an opposite outcome.

Unaffordable fines or imprisonment

Aybek (the name is changed) has recently been released from jail. He spent three years behind the bars for 3.5 grams of hashish, which he bought for his own use.

“In 2014, Aybek was caught with drugs and was told to pay a fine of 30,000 Kyrgyz Soms (375 euros) and was let go. Soon, he was seized again for a similar offence. The fine was left in force and in addition, Aybek was sentenced to three years of imprisonment,” the street lawyer of the Ranar Foundation Denis Kucheryaviyis telling. “Now Aybek lives in our social dormitory. He has no passport and he has no job. During his years in prison, he was able to pay only 30% of the fine. He has been told he cannot get his passport unless he pays the whole sum. How can he find a job with no documents? Recently, we learned that he was put on a wanted list due to his failure to pay the fine, so now he faces the threat of imprisonment again.”

According to the Criminal Code currently in force, possession of drugs with no intent to sell in big amounts exceeding one gram for heroin and three grams for hashish is now punished with a fine of 250 to 650 euros or with imprisonment for a term of up to five years. In the new Criminal Code, the fines will be increased up to 3,250-3,750 euros.

“There will be a huge increase in fines. The minimum fine will be 3,250 euros. Will a person injecting drugs be able to pay such a sum at least once in his life?” asks Sergey Bessonov, Executive Director of the Harm Reduction Network Association. “An alternative to paying the fine is deprivation of liberty for up to five years, though the fine will not “disappear” completely and will only move to another category of 1,250-1,750 euros. Now Aybek does not know how to pay 375 euros, and starting from 2019 people will be released after years in prison with fines, which will be 3-5 times higher.”

Humanisation or criminalisation

Fines for the small amounts of drugs (up to 1 gram of heroin and up to 3 grams of hashish) will also be increased. The administrative fine will grow 30-fold: from 12-25 euros to 370-750 euros.

Sergey Bessonov: “We need alternative punitive measures and effective treatment programmes”

“The punishment for the small amounts of drugs will be toughened in the Code of Administrative Offences depending on the number of similar offences during a year. For the first offence, the fine will amount to 2,000 Kyrgyz Soms (23 euros); for the second offence, an administrative arrest for five days will be applied; for the third offence, the fine will amount to 650 euros. In the new Code of Offences, the punishment will not be toughened and there will be no criminal record. Probably this is what the humanisation is about,” assumes Sergey Bessonov. “However, if we look at the practice, most people are seized with the amount of heroin 1.2 -1.5 g which is considered to be a big amount and falls under provisions of the Criminal Code. After the fines are increased, there is a probability that the number of people seized with small amounts of drugs will be growing. The worst thing is that violation of the Code of Offences may also lead to the imprisonment in case if the fine is not paid on time. A person will have two months to pay 370 euros. After this term, the fine will be doubled and the payment period will be extended by one more month. After this month is over, if the fine is still not paid, article 351 of the Criminal Code will come into force meaning from 2.5 to 5 years of imprisonment.”

Currently, Sergey Bessonov and the lawyers of his organisation desperately fight not only for Aybek to stay free, but also to change the legislative amendments proposed. They are due to come into force in one year so there is still a chance to collect evidence that such amendments will lead to the criminalisation of people who use drugs.

“Introducing heavy fines may lead to the growth of corruption practices and increase in the number of prison population, which will have a negative impact on the national budget. Now we are making attempts to show the evidence of all the risks to people developing the new codes,” says Sergey Bessonov. “We need alternative punitive measures and effective treatment programmes. Members of the community were not able to take part in the development of the new codes, but we hope that our voices will be heard. We are doing our best at the national level and we also plan to tell about the recent developments in the drug policy to the international community at AIDS 2018 Conference.”

Bridging the Gaps Returned the Faith

Tahmina’s story is one of the positive stories of women in Tajikistan, who, due to the social and legal support of the project Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations 2.0, again received hope and planned positive changes in their lives.

Family issues pushed to drugs

“When I studied in the 4th grade, my parents already had five children. This is the usual situation in Tajik families in the rural areas. Due to the frequent childbirth and burdensome care for five young children at the same time, my mother often fell ill. I had to drop out of school and take care of everything by myself,” Tahmina is saying.

Tahmina was taking care of all the things in the house, raised her brothers and sisters, helped them with school. Because of the health problems, her mother was constantly in hospitals. Her father spent days at work and came home late at night.

In one of such evenings, when the father was late at work and the mother was in the hospital, Tahmina’s uncle – her father’s brother – visited their house. Asking little Tahmina to come out of the house with him, the uncle raped her. Some time later, the neighbour found unconscious Tahmina and brought her to the hospital. Long investigations started, her mother and father were almost having nervous break-downs because the relatives of the girl started to hate her and blamed her for everything.

“Policemen always came to our house and asked me strange questions. I remember that when I came to the courtroom and saw my uncle there, I just fainted,” Tahmina is saying. “My uncle eventually was sent to prison and I became the cast-away for many of the relatives from my father’s side. Trying to save me from them, my parents sent me to the relatives from my mother’s side. I was always traveling to Dushanbe or to the other cities of the country.”

The girl started to meet different people, became friends with other girls in Qurghonteppa. During one of the meetings, the girls offered Tahmina to smoke cigarettes and then marihuana. They introduced Tahmina to Azam (the name is changed) who turned to be the big drug-dealer in Qurghonteppa.

“During a year and a half, he was keeping me locked in one of his apartments. Sometimes late at night, he would take me to the restaurants,” the woman recalls. “Taking all of this into consideration, he was still sending money to my parents. He taught me how to use drugs. This is how I became addicted to heroin. After some time, Azam’s interest to me faded away and I found myself on the street. Because at that moment my life totally depended on heroin, I started to steal and do sex work so that I could get a doze. As a result, I went to prison.”

The key visit to AFEW-Tajikistan

In 2013, Tahmina went to prison because of the theft. Being imprisoned for a quarter of her term, she got free because of the amnesty. When she went back home, the woman again faced the threats from her father’s relatives side. She had to leave her home and started to live on the streets again. After many unpleasant adventures, Tahmina met people who use drugs whom she knew before, and she started to use again.

Once, Tahmina met Bahriddin whom she knew before. He was also using drugs, but, to Tahmina’s surprise, he changed, and was looking good and happy. It turned out that Bahriddin started to work in the public organisation AFEW-Tajikistan as a peer consultant. He told Tahmina about how he succeeded to change, and he also mentioned the help and services that his organisation is providing. Tahmina got interested in that and decided to visit the drop-in center for the drug users and see everything by herself.

When she just came to AFEW-Tajikistan’s drop-in center, Tahmina was surprised that even though she had a dirty dress and flip-flops were barely covering her bloody feet, she was greeted very warmly. She was offered some tea and the workers talked with her about her health.

“I was very skinny and dirty, and I could not remember the last time I took shower or bath,” Tahmina is remembering that day now.

The social workers helped Tahmina with taking care of herself. They also helped her to come back to her parents’ house, arranged the documents for her and sent her to the doctors so that she could be checked and her health could be improved.

To see the sun again

Since summer 2017, Tahmina comes to the drop-in center very regularly. She is also taking part in self-help groups of people who use drugs. She learned the basics of her personal hygiene, HIV prevention and sexually transmitted infections (STI.) She got to know how to cope with the drug use and the possibilities to live sober. During one of the meetings, Tahmina got to know about opioid-substitution treatment (OST.) The friendly and warm atmosphere, respect and the possibility to get methadone for free inspired Tahmina to change her life.

Since August of the same year, Tahmina started to take part in OST programme that is located in the drug center where she would never go by herself. Nowadays, Tahmina is taking methadone and continues to take part in self-help groups. She found many friends who understand her and are ready to support her.

“With the support of AFEW-Tajikistan, during half of the year, I changed for better. I believed the peer consultants and social workers and started to help my mother, and I have not done so since I left home. AFEW helped me to gain the trust in myself again. My eyes are shining like it was before, I again see the sun and I want to live!” Tahmina is finishing her story with the smile on her face.

Only in 2017, 688 female drug users and vulnerable women in the Republic of Tajikistan were provided with the prevention and social services within the project Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations 2.0 that is financed by the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

Decriminalising Cannabis – a Step Forward to the Liberal Drug Policy: Opinions and Reflections of Discussions in Georgia

Author: Irma Kakhurashvili, Georgia

The former clergyman David (name changed – editor’s note) from Georgia, who was charged with cultivating cannabis, will have to pay 2,000 laris to the government based on the law and the plea agreement plus 500 laris for using marijuana.

David did not keep it secret from the police that he was growing and using cannabis for self-treatment and herbal therapy. According to the man, for two years it helped him to overcome pain and lose appetite, as Giorgi has diabetes, pancreatitis, cholecystitis, hepatitis C and hepatic cancer.

The former clergyman was “lucky” not to find himself behind the bars as on 30 November 2017 the Constitutional Court of Georgia resolved that the provision on criminal responsibility and imprisonment was a human rights violation, even in case of the repeated use of cannabis.

No legalization

The decision of the Constitutional Court only applies to people who use cannabis. Now cannabis possession for personal use within the set limits will not be prosecuted in line with the Criminal Code, but will rather be treated as an administrative offence.

The government will also expunge the convictions of those who were prosecuted for the use of cannabis in the past. The studies initiated by the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre in Georgia show that currently every third inmate is convicted for drug-related crimes. People using cannabis are also on this list.

In the joint survey conducted in 2015 by the National Centre for Disease Control and Public Health, 32% of men and 2.9% of women in Georgia reported having used marijuana. The issue of cannabis decriminalisation and legalisation was first raised five years ago, but then the initiator of this idea – civil movement “The 2nd of June” – failed to get support even from the community of people who use drugs because they demanded to decriminalise not all the drugs, but only cannabis.

Kote Rukhadze, activist of the Georgian Network of People Who Use Drugs, explains that advocating for cannabis separately from other drugs is not fair.

“Marijuana is also a psychoactive substance. Any person with physical or mental dependence needs help. Therefore, we will not support only those who smoke weed”, says Kote.

Despite the decision of the Constitutional Court, people advocating for reforming the Georgian drug policy are convinced that decriminalising cannabis is only a small part of positive changes in the repressive approaches of the state, though it gives hope for better results – decriminalisation of all drugs.

David Otiashvili, director of the Alternative Georgia NGO is sure that the decision of the Constitutional Court will help to change the attitude of the government to other drugs as well and will make the general approach more humane.

“The injecting drug use more often leads to dire consequences, which is clearly demonstrated by the number of overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases. Therefore, the reform should first of all focus not on the people who smoke but on improving the situation of people who inject drugs”, says David Otiashvili.

Pros and cons

The discussion of the draft law stipulating decriminalisation of all the types of drug use causes heated debates in the Georgian Parliament.

“I represent the generation of people whose friends started from smoking weed and then died of hard drugs. I am against decriminalisation, which will lead to the danger of uncontrolled distribution of drugs in the country and will paralyse the police”, says Giga Bukia, a member of the Georgian Dream parliamentary group.

The results of the research study published on the website of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia demonstrated that for 79.2% of probationers the first substance they tried was marijuana and the second one was opium.

However, one of the leading substance abuse treatment specialists, Nika Kapanadze notes that in his practice he has never seen any patients physically dependent on marijuana.

“Marijuana does not cause an acute abstinence syndrome. When people use it systematically, they may develop psychological dependence, bronchitis, sometimes short-term troubles controlling movements or concentrating, but nothing more,” says the doctor.

When meeting the MPs, Kaki Zoidze, chairman of the parliamentary healthcare committee and one of the supporters of the draft law, always reminds them that the document does not stipulate legalising drugs, cannabis in particular.

“This draft law is about liberalisation, and liberalisation does not cover article 260 on drug dealing and distribution. It will remain a criminal offence,” he explains.

Parliamentary majority member Dmitri Khundadze thinks that this draft law is a danger to the society as in Georgia there is no rehabilitation for people who use drugs, and without this component even dreaming about decriminalisation is dangerous.

The President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili does not support the drug policy which has “ruined the lives of many people.”

“I am for developing a more adequate drug policy,” said the President to the experts working on the draft law.


The assessment document prepared by the parliamentary healthcare committee describes various scenarios of the expected outcomes which may come out of drug policy reform. According to the document, if the reform is not implemented, by 2027 the number of people who use drugs will grow by 12.06% as compared to 2017 and will amount to 55,614 persons, and the number of people who use drugs infected with HIV will increase by 154%.

Georgia is getting ready to end the AIDS epidemic

Author: Irma Kakhurashvili, Georgia

The Director of the Infectious Diseases, AIDS and Clinical Immunology Research and Development Centre Tengiz Tsertsvadze estimates that number of people with HIV/AIDS in 2017 in Georgia was as high as 12,000

The UNAIDS 90-90-90 target, stipulating that 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression, was the key issue brought up at the National Conference dedicated to the World AIDS Day in Tbilisi. The conference was organized by the Infectious Diseases, AIDS and Clinical Immunology Research and Development Centre and the Georgian AIDS Association. Its motto was ‘Test All, Treat All, End the AIDS Epidemic in Georgia!’ Conference participants signed the Declaration ‘End the AIDS Epidemic in Georgia.’ The Declaration is a summary of the key effective measures to be taken to curb the AIDS epidemic in the country.

In 2004, Georgia became the first and remains the only Eastern European country providing universal access to the antiretroviral therapy (ART), which allows significantly increasing the life expectancy and the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS. In the period from 2004 to 2015, AIDS mortality in the country decreased almost fivefold.

New efforts and new results needed

However, despite the significant progress in the response to HIV, there are still unresolved issues in the country.

“In Georgia, the main problem is that a big number of new HIV infections are not diagnosed. 2010-2016 data confirm this trend. That is why the total number of HIV/AIDS patients is growing. Usually, the real indicators are several times higher than the official statistics. According to our estimates, in 2010 the real number of new infections was about 1,000 cases, while only 455 cases were diagnosed. In 2017, the estimated number of people with HIV/AIDS was as high as 12,000, with only 719 new cases diagnosed,” says Tengiz Tsertsvadze, the Director of the Infectious Diseases, AIDS and Clinical Immunology Research and Development Centre. “Most people learn about their status by chance. 55% of HIV patients become aware of the infection at later stages, and 30% are already at the advanced stages when HIV is diagnosed.”

The most promising intervention to curb the AIDS epidemic in Georgia is the so-called treatment as prevention approach. A person living with HIV who has access to the effective ART does not transmit the virus to others. That is why, if such “treatment as prevention” strategy is applied to detect all HIV/AIDS cases and cover all HIV-positive people with health services, the epidemic can be eliminated.

According to Tengiz Tsertsvadze, this goal may be achieved through implementation of a unique national hepatitis C elimination program, which can play a crucial role in ending not only hepatitis C, but also HIV.

The fact is that the HIV/AIDS detection rate may be significantly improved through integration of HIV and hepatitis C testing within this program, stipulating provision of free treatment to about 20,000 patients a year. The Georgian Ministry of Health expects that thanks to this program in the nearest future there will be zero new cases of hepatitis C, and 95% of patients will be cured. All patients, irrespective of the stage of their disease, will be able to become participants of this national program.

Recent trends

HIV/AIDS Prevention Program Director at the Georgian Harm Reduction Network Maka Gogia says that in 2011-2017 there was a sharp reduction in the HIV rate among people who inject drugs

In two recent years, there were no babies born with HIV in Georgia. Besides, according to Maka Gogia, HIV/AIDS Prevention Program Director at the Georgian Harm Reduction Network, in 2011-2017 there was a sharp reduction in the HIV rate among people who inject drugs. While in 2011 the share of such people in the total number of detected cases was 45%, by 2017 such share fell down to 24%. This is a result of free syringe distribution.

The annual dynamics of HIV transmission routes in the new cases of HIV/AIDS shows reduction in new cases among injecting drug users with a growing proportion in the sexual route of transmission, especially in MSM (men who have sex with men). Nino Tsereteli, Executive Director of the Centre for Information and Counselling on Reproductive Health “Tanadgoma” says that a joint study of the AIDS Centre and “Tanadgoma” showed that in the recent years HIV/AIDS prevalence among men who have sex with men exceeds 20%.

According to the AIDS Centre the current statistics are: 43.1% of people living with HIV are injecting drug users; 44.4% get infected through heterosexual contacts, 9.8% – through homo- and bisexual contacts; about 1.5% are children who contracted HIV from their mothers during pregnancy; 0.5% cases are attributed to blood transfusions.


As of 1 December 2017, the Georgian AIDS Centre registered 6,711 cases of HIV (5,013 men, 1,698 women). Most patients are 29-39 years old.

577 new HIV/AIDS cases have been detected in 11 months of 2017. ARV therapy is provided to 4,018 patients, including 48 children.

As of 2017, about 12,000 people were infected with HIV, 3,648 patients developed AIDS, and 1,339 died.

The First AFEW Regional Autumn School Was Conducted in Kazakhstan

Author: Marina Maximova, Kazakhstan

Representatives of 10 countries took part in the first regional autumn school organized by AFEW, which was held from 30 October to 5 November in the Oy-Karagay gorge, not far from Almaty, Kazakhstan. The school was conducted with the support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

High mountains, hot sun, picturesque autumn landscapes, atmosphere of the national yurt instead of the traditional training hall – combined with the team spirit and expectations of positive changes – contributed to the creative atmosphere of the event. The school participants included representatives of the AFEW network from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Netherlands, Tajikistan, Ukraine, sub-grantees of the project ‘Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations,’ and partner organizations. Such allies and friends are the biggest guarantee of success.

Learning to bridge the gaps

“The autumn school helps to find the answers to a range of questions and get acquainted with the new innovative practices in working with key populations,” says Dilshod Pulatov, Project Manager, ‘Bridging the Gaps’ programme, AFEW-Tajikistan.

He presented the results of the social study to assess the level of labour migration among people who use drugs. It was conducted for 18 months in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The study, which covered 600 respondents, demonstrated regional trends and showed interesting results. The main of them is that the labour migrants who use drugs do not know where they can get help and who can offer such help. In both countries, the respondents pointed out that as labour migrants they experienced problems with access to health and social services.

The results of this research study will help AFEW to scale up the access of drug users to quality HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support services and find new partners. Partnerships were created right at the discussion platform. This study proved to be interesting not only to the participants, but also to the guests invited to take part in the autumn school, including representatives of the Project HOPE in Kazakhstan.

Platform for discussion and activism

Today, ‘Bridging the Gaps’ programme is implemented by the organizations from four countries of the region. The autumn school became a platform to discuss strategies, barriers, innovations, and opportunities for cooperation.

“In our country, the biggest gap is an access of underage people who use drugs (PUD) to services. Many services are offered to adult PUD, in particular with support of the international donors. It allows them getting qualified help. At the same time, people often forget that the first experience of drug use happens under the age of 18,” tells Anastasia Shebardina, Project Manager, AFEW-Ukraine.

The project made an important contribution for radically changing the situation: it opened the only rehab centre for drug dependent adolescents in Chernivtsi and supported four civil society organizations.

In each country, there are success stories, which became possible thanks to the project implementation. So far, these are just tiny steps forward in the big scope of the existing problems. Every such step became possible thanks to project staff and activists working hard for a long time, but such victories, even if they are small, enhance personal motivation of people and allow them to set bigger goals.

“One of our achievements is developing the standards of services for PUD serving sentences in the Georgian prisons. We educate prison staff and have drafted a special training module for this purpose. In some organizations, support groups for PUD are already functioning. Rehab centre Help has opened its doors to clients. Now 12 people can stay there and get qualified help. We plan to cover all correctional facilities in the country with our activities,” shares his plans Vazha Kasrelishvili, Project Coordinator of the NGO Tanadgoma.

From knowledge sharing to new rehabilitation models

Sharing knowledge and best practices is one of the goals of the autumn school. Together, it is easier to elaborate strategies and innovative approaches, considering that the tendencies in development of the situation in the region are similar. Today, the search to fund vital projects also requires joint efforts, taking into account the reduction of the funding received from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and other donors in the region. So far, national governments are not ready to take over this financial burden in full scope. Despite their broad fundraising efforts, civil society organizations do not have enough grant funds aimed at scaling up access to services for key populations.

“With the support of the Ministry of Health of the Kyrgyz Republic, within our project we developed two clinical guidelines: on managing pregnancy, delivery and postnatal period of female PUD and on mental health and behaviour disorders in children and adolescents caused by the use of new psychoactive substances. We were able to open a social office for women with HIV, which offers counselling of psychologists and peer consultants. In the country, there are two rehab centres for women with HIV and drug dependence, which cooperate with friendly clinics,” tells Natalya Shumskaya, the head of the AIDS Foundation East-West in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Today, there is a need to use new, more effective rehabilitation models. This idea has been supported by all participants of the autumn school. Such models should be aimed at developing inner strength – empowerment – of each of the members of key populations.

“Maybe now it is time to change and expand our understanding of the rehabilitation concept. It is not only detox and psychology. There should be equal opportunities, in particular based on harm reduction, to accept yourself,” points out Anna Sarang, President of Andrey Rylkov Foundation, Russia.

Preparations to AIDS 2018

Participants of the autumn school also discussed preparations to the 22nd International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2018) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands – the main event of the next year for activists of the AIDS organizations. All countries of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia are already actively preparing for the conference. How can decision makers be involved into this crucial event? What channels are most effective in communicating information about the conference? How to make this event significant? Every day, participants of the autumn school discussed these and other questions. Besides, they learned how to write abstracts for the conference and choose catchy titles for them.

It is very important that the participants developed some new ideas, concepts and thoughts, because starting from 1 December 2017 registration for AIDS 2018 will be open. It will be a new and diverse platform for discussions making decisions significant for all countries and communities.

HIV Test: the Work of Mobile Clinic in Kyiv

Tatiana shows a card of the recipient of services from Eney

Author: Yana Kazmyrenko, Ukraine

We have spent one day with the mobile clinic in Kyiv, Ukraine, that provides HIV testing for people who inject drugs. The social worker Tatiana quit using drugs and has now been diagnosing five HIV cases monthly.

Tatiana Martynyuk (54 years old) visits up to 10 apartments every day, and at least five of her clients each month turn out to be HIV positive. She works at a mobile clinic of the Eney Club in Kyiv, where she anonymously detects HIV and hepatitis C. The project has been supported by ICF Public Health Alliance for more than ten years. There are five mobile teams from the organization in Kyiv and one team always works night shifts in order to cover the sex workers’ testing.

Eney has a large base of volunteers. These people actively use drugs. They offer their friends and acquaintances to pass HIV testing which only takes 15 minutes. If the test is positive, they persuade a person to go to the City AIDS Centre and register there. Not everybody agrees, half of them reject saying that nothing is hurting, and they will not go anywhere.

We have the meeting on Shevchenko Square, the northern outskirts of Kyiv. Our first clients live not so far away. Tatiana brings them HIV tests, alcohol wipes and condoms.

Boiling shirka

Irina shows a drop of blood during testing

Sergey and Irina are meeting us in their one bedroom apartment, where everything is filled up with their belongings. The owners have been planning to renew the closet for several years already, but they have no money and energy for that. Irina, 43 years old, takes the test first. She is already receiving services from Eney.

“I tried drugs two years ago and I liked it,” she is saying, hiding her cracked hands. Ira has been working as a dishwasher, but currently she has no income as the restaurant is being closed.

The woman is getting nervous and takes a cigarette from Tania. The social worker asks Ira to do the test on her own so that she can do the test without any help in case of emergency. A drop of blood, four drops of the special liquid, and a long ten-minute waiting during which Tatiana has the time to ask what Ira knows about HIV.

“The most important thing: HIV can be in shirka (the popular name for one of the most commonly injected opiate derivates,) where a syringe was put for just a second. If in doubt – boil shirka,” Tatiana is instructing, asking other people to leave the kitchen. The HIV test result is strictly confidential.

Ira is satisfied with the test results, and she is going to wash the dishes. The 33-year-old Sergey is sitting at the table. It was he who “tricked” his female partner into trying drugs. He has been using drugs for 10 years.

Our client is not interested in getting the information about HIV: he is arguing, and saying that you can get HIV while visiting a dentist. Tatiana changes the subject and asks him to invite his friends for the check. Initially, three more people were willing to take the test, but at the end, only 28-year-old Artem came in. He has a rich biography, which includes a 10-year record of drug usage and imprisonment.

“If I want – I will take the drug. If I decide to quit it – I will quit it. I am not in the system. I earn 18,000 hryvnia (about 600 euros) on repairs and construction sites. I can do everything,” he boasts while lighting up a cigarette.

Receiving assistance from their peers

Vladimir’s wife, Inna, waiting for test results

While we are driving, Tatyana keeps telling her story: she has been injecting drugs for 25 years, and then she quit. She was tired and wanted to change her life. Her husband died, her son was drinking alcohol, and her mother is sick. At first, she found work as a street sweeper, but then she settled in Eney Club.

“I get more tired at this job than when I was sweeping the streets. Everyone needs to talk and to be heard, I need to organize things. I am not judging anyone. These people will only accept a help from a person like they are,” she shares.

It seems that with each visit to the next apartment, Tatiana challenges her willpower. She could possibly get her dose of drugs in any such place. Nevertheless, she is holding on. In her situation, one needs to have a special talent in order not to lose the spirit and to do the work with all your heart.

Needle veteran

Vladimir is having a holiday in his apartment in Obolonsky Lipky, the elite district in Kyiv. His prison sentence for the distribution and transportation of drugs has been changed into the conditional one. This was the fourth prison sentence for the 54-year old Kyiv citizen.

Tatiana helps Vladimir with a test

“I have been injecting drugs for 35 years now. I wonder how I survived. Everybody with who I started, is already dead. I prepare everything myself as I know all the recipes. I have studied the 1938 medical military handbook,” Vladimir is saying.

“Vova, you are such a fine fellow,” admires Tanya. The toothless Vova smiles and invites us to see his bathroom, where he has recently changed the tiles.

Vladimir takes the test and tells that he is going to get tooth implants and will start taking care of his health.

“I would not survive without drugs. I got all possible strains of hepatitis and in this way, I keep myself in shape,” he explains.

Vladimir’s elder brother is 59. He has been trying to quit drugs after a stroke. He smells of alcohol – he has been drinking vodka.

“That is how life used to be. In the 90s you would make a whole basin of shirka and you treat the whole district, but times changed and shirka is not the same anymore. We had loads of heroin,” he recalls with nostalgia.

The wives of the two brothers, Inna and Irina, also use drugs. During the test, Inna tells Tatiana to hurry up. She did not have time for injecting the dose, and now she cannot wait to get it.

Improving personal life

“Can you imagine this? I woke up in the morning and noticed that I lost my tooth and ate it in my sleep,” Marta is saying. She works as a hairdresser and has colorful hair.

Marta has been using drugs since she was 12. She says that drugs in Kyiv in the 80s were an element of prestige like a cherry VAZ 2109 (car model.) There was a seven-year break in her history. She started using drugs all over again when she had found out that her first love was HIV positive.

“He died, and I went crazy. In general, I cannot live without injecting. It is an addiction,” she explains.

Marta tries to take the test once a year, and she is going to improve her personal life.

“Tania, please, give me more condoms. My friends have been searching for a fiancée for me. I imagine him taking drugs, but not being a goner; I want him to have an apartment, as I would like to give birth to a child,” she continues.

Tania asks Marta to take her friend for the testing next time. A woman with a dark hair bandage is nervously waiting for her friend. She has recently become a widow, her husband died because of an overdose.

The social base of drug users is expanding

After the test, Tatyana immediately agrees to meet with the next client

After three visits, the social worker is tired, but there are still some addresses from the other side of the city.

“Our program helps them to be safe and control their health. I would also like to add some food arrangements – some of them do not have any food for weeks,” Tania is saying.

The harm reduction program among people who inject drugs in Eney Club started in 2001. The annual coverage was more than 6000 people in 2016. Out of these number, 80% of people have been tested for HIV. Now, the average level of HIV detection among clients is 3.5%, where 80% of people have been placed on dispensary records. The level of drug usage has been growing in Kyiv. There appeared separate subgroups among the people who use drugs. Veterans of the Donbas conflict and immigrants from the Eastern Ukraine form such subgroups.

Drug Treatment Systems in Prisons in Eastern Europe Discussed by AFEW Board Member

Council of Europe Co-operation Group to Combat Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in Drugs published a new publication “Drug Treatment Systems in Prisons in Eastern and Southeastern Europe”. The publication sheds light into the situation of drug users among criminal justice populations and corresponding health care responses in ten countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine. AFEW‘s board member Vladimir Mendelevich is one of the contributors of the publication. 

The research project on drug-treatment systems in prisons in Eastern and South-East Europe looks in detail into the situation of drug users among criminal justice populations and the corresponding health-care responses in nine countries in Eastern and South-East Europe – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and Ukraine – and Kosovo. It was conducted between 2013 and 2016, and is a first attempt to collect relevant data on drug use among prison populations and the related responses in the nine countries and Kosovo.

Although the places chosen are quite heterogeneous in size, structure, legislation, economy, culture and language, they are all in a process of economic, social and cultural transition. This has triggered reforms of some of their prison systems and policies but it has also led to financial and political instability and lack of leadership due to frequent changes in the prison systems’ top management.

The full publication can be downloaded here.

Hepatitis A Prevails in Kyrgyzstan

Author: Olga Ochneva, Kyrgyzstan

Hepatitis Prevention Month to commemorate the World Hepatitis Day was organised for the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan by the Ministry of Health in July this year. Over the recent years, the list of registered and allowed for import medications to treat hepatitis C has been expanded, the new clinical treatment protocol has been approved and a six-year target program to counteract viral hepatitis was adopted. Hepatitis is one of the leading causes of death among people living with HIV and higher-risk populations. Without a doubt, the discussion of availability of hepatitis diagnosis and treatment, introduction of treatment guidelines and implementation of the national viral hepatitis interventions will be an important part of the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam in 2018. We discussed the reasons for the increased attention to the problem of hepatitis in KyrgyzstanIn with Nurgul Ibraeva, Chief Officer of the Department of Health Services and Medications Policy of the Kyrgyz Ministry of Health.

Statistics and the real picture

“The problem of viral hepatitis in Kyrgyzstan is growing every year. Blood-borne hepatitis B and C remain a challenging concern, as patients consult the doctors whey they already have advanced illness and complications, such as liver cirrhosis and cancer. During the Hepatitis Prevention Month, we raised awareness in the population about the need to get tested and offered discounted tests that were supported by private laboratories. Many people in Kyrgyzstan find the price for hepatitis testing (around $50) challenging, so patients often discover their disease at an advanced stage,” Nurgul Ibraeva says. “Following the official statistics, in the last five years 11,000–22,000 people with viral hepatitis were registered on an annual basis. Health services provide treatment to more than 2,000 patients with parenteral hepatitis (hepatitis B, C and D – author’s note), but we believe that the actual number of those infected is much higher: more than 250,000 people.”

Prevalence of hepatitis A is the highest. It accounts for 96% of the registered cases, with blood-borne hepatitis B coming second. According to the National Immunization Schedule, since 2000, hepatitis B vaccine is administered to all newborns free-of-charge. As a result, hepatitis B incidence had a fourfold decrease over the last 16 years. Currently, our health services register around 300–400 new cases of hepatitis B among adults annually, while incidence among children dropped to several isolated cases.

“Immunization brings its fruit. According to the Ministry of Health regulation, health workers exposed to blood should be vaccinated, yet no funds are allocated for it, and not every health worker can afford a vaccine,” Nurgul Ibraeva is saying. “Unfortunately, there is no vaccine against hepatitis C. Even if you use means of protection and take the necessary precautions, there is always a risk. Some health care staff remain untested, and it is our estimate that around 1000 health workers have hepatitis C.”

According to the Republican AIDS Center and the Research and Production Association “Preventive medicine” of the Kyrgyz Ministry of Health, in 2014–2015, the share of health personnel with hepatitis C in the general HCV prevalence amounted to 2.5%. The same percentage is attributed to the general public.

Hepatitis C prevalence is the highest among people who inject drugs (PWID). In 2010, 50% of all hepatitis C cases was registered among PWID. By 2015, this share dropped to 35%. Inmates are also among those especially vulnerable to hepatitis C. Over the last six years, 24–53% of all cases were identified in correctional institutions.

“Needle exchange services and opioid substitution therapy are available in Kyrgyzstan, including prisons,” Nurgul Ibraeva is telling. “Prevention programs strive to break the chain of transmission, but the share of infections remains high, even though we managed to stabilize the situation.”

As is the case with other population groups, key populations are still inadequately covered by diagnostic services. According to the official data, from 100 to 200 new cases of hepatitis C are annually registered in Kyrgyzstan. However, the estimated number of people with hepatitis C is much higher: 101,960 cases among the general population and more than 11,000 cases among people who use injecting drugs.

Availability of treatment

In April 2014, the coalition of non-governmental organizations under the initiative of the “Partner Network” Association of Harm Reduction Programs successfully lobbied changes in the Kyrgyz patent legislation. This allowed Kyrgyzstan to import and license generic medications to treat hepatitis C. Currently, a 12-week treatment course on the basis of an officially registered drug costs $615 for a generic and $1500 for the original.

“We have access to several licensed medications produced in China, Egypt and India,” Nurgul Ibraeva says. “If earlier treatment for one patient amounted to $15 000–20 000, today patients can choose medications they can afford. With the expansion of the list of available drugs, producers have been lowering their prices. Yet, patients still have to pay for treatment, which is a challenge for key populations.”

All imported medications have been included in the Essential Medicines List, which is a pre-requisite for the potential state procurement in the future. A Target Program to Address Viral Hepatitis for the period till 2022 has been approved, yet it does not guarantee treatment and does not have financial backing for the planned activities. At the same time, only among people living with HIV, the prevalence of parenteral viral hepatitis exceeds 14%. Over the past six years, the registered number of people with HIV and hepatitis C co-infection increased twofold and reached 701 cases in 2015. Advocates succeeded to include annual hepatitis C treatment for 100 people with HIV into the State Program for HIV Control. Treatment will be financed by the government for the period of five years. Besides, this year a Clinical Protocol for Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention of Viral Hepatitis B, C and D has been approved. The document is aligned with the latest WHO recommendations and treatment regimens based on direct acting antiviral drugs that are widely available on the market.