Injecting drug users are denied HIV drugs in some places in the world, making it much more difficult to combat the epidemic, experts said at the recent Aids conference.
Drug users have spouses, children and often multiple sex partners, making them a major vector of HIV transmission. In Thailand, they are randomly rounded up, publicly humiliated and jailed, said Paisan Suwannawong of the non-government Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group.
"Police have to meet their quotas so they arrest IDUs (injecting drug users) and throw them behind bars. They are forced into cold turkey without any kind of help. Some are even randomly killed and these cases are not investigated," Suwannawong said in an interview after delivering a speech at the International AIDS conference in Mexico City.
"They are stigmatised and not accepted as humans. Police shave their heads and make them run around their villages to humiliate them. They are not given HIV drugs because people think they can't adhere to treatment."
"But IDUs are the only high-risk group in Thailand experiencing no reduction in HIV prevalence in 20 years and they make up 25 percent of all new infections ... they must be given HIV drugs," said Suwannawong.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association challenged the notion that drug users do not stick to HIV treatments.
Suwannawong and other panellists called for more humane treatment of drug users, recommending strategies such as clean needle exchange programmes.
But many governments fear that needle exchange programmes condone drug use and refuse to implement them. The US federal government opposes such programmes, although some US cities have legalised them.
Drug use linked with HIV-infection
Injecting drug users make up 30 percent of all new infections outside sub-Saharan Africa and 89 percent of all new cases in Asia.
In the United States, between 25 and 33 percent of injecting drug users are infected with HIV.
But in Australia, where clean needle exchange is widely promoted, only 3 percent to 6 percent of injecting drug users are HIV positive, said Kamarulzaman, who also heads the Malaysian AIDS Council.
Needle exchange programmes exist in 77 countries but in China and Malaysia, for example, anti-narcotics police still conduct raids on needle-exchange sites, which only drive drug users further underground, Kamarulzaman said. – (Tan Ee Lyn/Reuters Health)
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