Criminalizing drug use hinders HIV prevention

Criminalizing drug use hinders HIV prevention

Ever since the appearance of HIV, reusing injection equipment in health services is practically non existent anymore, however, shared use of syringes and needles still happens among people who use drugs. This is why the substance abuse population is a group which is very vulnerable to getting HIV.

Just in 2020 alone, 9% of new HIV infections all over the world were between people who are injectable drug users, as informed by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). This number increases to 20% if the area outside Sub-Saharan Africa is taken into account.

On the occasion of International Drug Users’ Day, celebrated on November 1st, the UN agency on AIDS called out to all the member States in order to stop criminalizing drug consumption and possession for personal use, since these measures prevent drug users from reaching out to HIV related health services, such as screening tests and antiretroviral treatment.

People who use drugs, UNAIDS pointed out in a statement, face a high level of stigmatization, besides severe punishment such as incarceration or separation from their children, and it has been observed that this situation drives them away from health services, even from those strategies known as harm reduction. This not only exposes them to HIV and other infections such as hepatitis, but to overdoses as well.

Two tangible examples 

Harm reduction strategies have been well defined since a long time ago. They mainly consist of, providing new syringes (and in many cases, collecting used ones in a safe manner), substituting opioids (such as heroin) for other legal and more controlled substances, facilitating frequent HIV screening tests and providing antiretroviral treatment in positive cases.

A scenario in which the impact of these strategies was able to be seen was in Estonia and Latvia, two countries located in Eastern Europe, a region in which a large part of the HIV epidemic is centered around drug users.

UNAIDS reports the HERMETIC study showed that, between 2007 and 2016, new HIV infections decreased 61% in Estonia, while there was a 72% increase in Latvia.

The difference was because of a more effective application of harm reduction: 230 new syringes and needles were distributed per user each year in Estonia, while in Latvia only 93 were distributed; in Estonia, by 2016, almost 50% of drug users would get an HIV test every 12 months, but in Latvia only 10% of the drug using population got an HIV test between 2007 and 2016. Regarding antiretroviral treatment, three fourths of drug users with HIV in Estonia were under treatment, while in Latvia this number was just above one fourth.

Criminalization must be stopped 

However, harm reduction strategies will not be successful by themselves. UNAIDS points out that even when these are available, they are not always accessed easily. Policies which criminalize drug possession and consumption are among the main obstacles for healthcare for these populations.

The international agency also reminded that, at the beginning of this year, UN Member States set global targets regarding decriminalization and de-stigmatization of drug users, to be met by 2025. Among these targets are:

  • That 90% of people who inject drugs have access to complete harm reduction services, which encompass HIV, hepatitis C and mental health services.
  • That 80% of HIV prevention services for those who use drugs are led by non government organizations managed by people who use drugs.

If you want to get a free HIV test, need condoms or more information on how to protect yourself, at AHF Latin America and The Caribbean we can help you. Go to our nearest office in your country or write to us via Whatsapp.