Reasons for Drug Policy Reform

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Text: Michel Kazatchkine, UN secretary general special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Why is eastern Europe the only region in the world that still has a growing HIV epidemic? In one of the region’s countries, Russia, more than two thirds of all HIV infections, and 55% of the near 100 000 new infections reported last year, resulted from drug injection.

Some 3.2 million people in eastern Europe inject drugs, and about 1.5 million of them are in Russia. In 2007 the number of newly reported HIV cases among Russian people who inject drugs (12 538) was similar to the number in the rest of eastern Europe (12 026). But since then the numbers have diverged hugely.

Scaling up of harm reduction programmes in several countries coincided with a stabilising of HIV rates—and fewer than 7000 new cases outside Russia in 2014. In Russia, however, where access to sterile needles and syringes is low and opioid substitutes remain illegal and unavailable, the number of people who inject drugs newly infected with HIV climbed to nearly 22 500 in 2014.

Criminalisation of drug use

The reasons for Russia’s high figures include the prohibition and effective criminalisation of drug use, repressive law enforcement, and stigma around drug use. These factors lead people to inject in unsafe conditions for fear of police and arrests and result in needle sharing and overdose.

In 2015, the United Nations’ secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, called for “careful rebalancing of the international policy on controlled drugs.”

“We must consider alternatives to criminalisation and incarceration of people who use drugs,” he said. “We should increase the focus on public health, prevention, treatment, and care.”

The World Health Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and UNAIDS jointly recommend a package of harm reduction interventions as best practice to reduce the risk of acquiring, and improve treatment of, HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis among people who inject drugs. Such strategies, which do not require prohibition of harmful behaviours, are key to reducing death and disease because drug dependency is characterised by people’s inability to abstain.

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AFEW Takes Part in 21st International AIDS Conference ‘ACCESS EQUITY RIGHTS NOW’

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AIDS Foundation East-West (AFEW) is taking part in 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016), on 18-22 July 2016 in Durban, South Africa. Visitors of AFEW booth in EUROzone of the Global Village will have the opportunity to leave a wish to be taken to the 22nd International AIDS Conference that will take place in 2018 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

“I am very glad to welcome our colleagues and friends to AFEW booth, – said Anke van Dam, executive director of AFEW. – We would like to share the results of our work in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and also invite them to come to the next conference in Amsterdam. AFEW is asked to engage EECA in the AIDS 2018 conference, and for us it is very important that many people from the region will be present to show their key activities there.”

On July 19 Anke van Dam will host a question and answer session about the road to AIDS 2018 starting at 15:00 at AFEW booth. Dutch Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights & HIV/AIDS Mr. Lambert Grijns and UN Secretary-General Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia Mr. Michel Kazatchkine will be taking part in it.

On Wednesday, 20 July the executive director of AFEW will talk about youth friendly services in Ukraine at an expert panel that will discuss activities for young key populations at 11:30. On Thursday, 21 July Anke van Dam will tell about the migrants during “Migrants and Access to Health” panel that will start at 16:00 in the EUROzone in the Global Village.

AIDS 2016 conference in South Africa will focus on the latest issues in HIV science, policy and practice and will also seek to share key research findings, lessons learned, best practices, as well as identify gaps in knowledge. The conference will feature abstract-driven sessions, a daily plenary session, a variety of symposia sessions, professional development workshops, and independently organized satellite meetings. In addition, the programme will include a number of activities, such as the Global Village and the Youth Programme, which are an integral aspect of the International AIDS Conference.