The role of harm reduction in controlling HIV among injecting drug users

Injecting drug users (IDU) now account for one in 10 new HIV infections world wide. Yet it has been known since the early 1990s that HIV among IDU can be effectively, safely and cost-effectively controlled by the early and vigorous implementation of a comprehensive package of strategies known as ’harm reduction’. This concept means that decreasing drug-related harms is accorded an even higher priority than reduction of drug consumption. Strategies required involve: explicit and peer-based education about the risk of HIV from sharing injecting equipment; needle syringe programmes; drug treatment (including especially opiate substitution treatment) and community development. Many countries experiencing or threatened by an HIV epidemic among IDU have now adopted harm reduction but often implementation has been too little and too late. Although coverage is slowly improving in many countries, HIV is still spreading faster among IDU than harm reduction programmes while coverage in correctional centres lags far behind community settings. The scientific debate about harm reduction is now over. National and international support for harm reduction is growing while almost all the major UN organizations responsible for drug policy now support harm reduction. Only a small number of countries, led by the USA, are still vehemently opposed to harm reduction. Excessive reliance on drug law enforcement remains the major barrier to increased adoption of harm reduction. Sometimes zealous drug law enforcement undermines harm reduction. A more balanced approach to drug law enforcement is required with illicit drug use recognized primarily as a health and social problem.

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