Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Harm Reduction Needs to Start in Health Facilities

Now that PEPFAR (the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) have revised their Bush era decision to refuse funding to harm reduction programs, the Kenyan government may also consider changing their policy towards intravenous drug users (IDU). According to the head of Kenya's National Aids Control Program, addiction will be treated as a health issue and needle exchange, methadone and condoms will provided for IDUs.

Although the contribution of intravenous drug use to Kenya's epidemic is currently estimated to stand at about 4%, this kind of exposure is a highly efficient transmitter of HIV. Heterosexual sex, on the other hand, is not such an efficient transmitter. In some countries, sex workers are only likely to die of Aids if they are also IDUs.

Commercial sex work can be one of the few ways to make enough money to feed a drug addiction. The drugs have to be paid for, but injecting equipment can be, and often is, shared. So a source of clean injecting equipment for IDUs could play a big part in reducing HIV transmission by this route. However, the decision to fund HIV programs that target HIV transmission among IDUs may also allow better estimates of their full contribution towards Kenya's epidemic. It may also allow a better evaluation of the part that commercial sex work plays in the epidemic.

Very few HIV positive IDUs are currently on antiretroviral treatment. Such treatment could significantly reduce sexual transmission of HIV, though it may not reduce non-sexual transmission so much. But giving IDUs better access to diagnosis and treatment should improve conditions for them and reduce further HIV transmission.

Sadly, the Kenyan police force may need more than a change in the law. As long as they and others can make money out of drug users, it's unlikely they will all turn into social workers overnight. Nor are NASCOP in a position to decriminalize drug use on their own. So let's hope decriminalization becomes a reality. If the administrators of PEPFAR can change their minds for ideological reasons, I'm sure the relevant people in the Kenyan government could change theirs for pragmatic reasons.

But any kind of re-evaluation of non-sexual modes of HIV transmission would be welcome in Kenya, in fact, in all African countries. If donors, governments, health professionals and other big players in the HIV scene start to think about highly efficient modes of transmission, as opposed to the low efficiency of most types of sexual behavior, ordinary academics, epidemiologists and others may eventually be allowed to research and publish data that currently appears to be deprecated (to put it mildly).

Those with the money, however they managed to get hold of it, decide how that money should be spent. There's little point in waving a lot of drug addicts in front of donors if those donors are opposed to working with drug addiction. With such restrictions lifted, who knows, drug addiction, and therefore HIV transmission among IDUs (and those they associate with), may turn out to be more common than previously assumed.

Perhaps donors and governments will eventually revise their attitude towards commercial sex work, especially in view of its interconnections with drug use. This could even lead to questions about exactly how much sex has to do with HIV when the far more likely transmitter is non-sexual.

And, it's a long shot, but if the HIV industry is willing to accept that some HIV is transmitted non-sexually, even among people who are said to have a lot of 'unsafe' sex, they may even wonder if ordinary people engaging in ordinary amounts of 'safe' sex are being infected non-sexually too.

Drug users are not the only people who use injecting equipment. More disturbingly, they are not the only people reusing injecting equipment. Some people get a lot of injections, because they are sick, pregnant, an infant, a sex worker, whatever. And in populations with high HIV prevalence, all of those people are at heightened risk of being infected with HIV, non-sexually.

Maybe we’ll live to see the day when sex is viewed once again as an aspect of health and life rather than as a spreader of disease. But first, we have to accept that poor health care can be a significant source of disease. Harm reduction programs, now that health care professionals and governments are allowed to talk about them again, need to start in health facilities.


1 comment:

Judson said...
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