At this year’s Harm Reduction conference in Lithuania advocates are calling for the political will to address the HIV epidemic driven by injecting drug use in many parts of the world.
At this year’s Harm Reduction conference in Lithuania advocates are calling for the political will to address the HIV epidemic driven by injecting drug use in many parts of the world. Key Correspondent Sidi Sarro reports on how this issue is impacting lives in Kenya:
According to the latest UNAIDS data, Kenya is among the ten leading countries with the highest number of people injecting drugs and living with HIV.
Helena* is just one of more than 25,000 young people who use drugs in Kenya. Her brothers introduced her to drugs when she was 13 and around that time she also got into sex work to pay for her drugs. The toll her addiction has taken is visible by the scars on her body.
Helena says: “I’m not really sure when I got infected with HIV, but two of my children died from AIDS-related complications.”
Injecting drugs and HIV
Helena has not earned enough money today for her daily dose of drugs and she is agitated, restless and bleary eyed. Trudging along a narrow muddy pathway littered with human waste and used condoms she calls at a half-built house where a lanky dreadlocked man is sitting with two others.
Helena removes a syringe from her back-pocket and gives it to the man. He ties his upper arm, gets a vein and injects himself with the syringe. He draws blood from his arm and hands the syringe with blood in it to Helena who injects herself.
This is how they help each other; the one who has injected drugs gives his blood to others to give them the feeling of intoxication and to stop withdrawal symptoms.
Lack of education on HIV transmission
After a few minutes Helena puts the syringe in her back pocket and now she is ready to talk.
“I got two used syringes from a ‘mzungu’ [white person] sometime back and I wash them every time I use them and when the needle gets blunt we sharpen it. I don’t mind sharing because we are all one and we should help each other,” she says.
“I have HIV but the drugs I inject are stronger than HIV therefore I cannot transmit it to anyone. I don’t always use condoms unless a client asks me to because unprotected sex pays more.”
War on drugs fuels HIV epidemic
The Kenyan government is increasing its efforts to curb drug use by deploying a special team in and around Mombasa to monitor drug trafficking. Yet criminalisation of drug users is an ineffective way of tackling the issue.
In July 2012, the Global Commission on Drug Policy explained how the global war on drugs is driving the HIV pandemic among people who use drugs and their sexual partners.
Their report said: “Throughout the world, research has consistently shown that repressive drug law enforcement practices force drug users away from public health services and into hidden environments where HIV risk becomes markedly elevated.”
Greater political will needed to effectively address HIV
The Kenya AIDS NGOs Consortium (KANCO) has taken a leading role in the region with harm reduction programmes that include counselling, and exchange of clean needles and syringes for old ones. The focus is to reduce the risk of harm to people who inject drugs.
Evelyn Kibuchi, KANCO’s manager for community action on harm reduction, said: “The latest estimates from the Kenya HIV Epidemics 2012 report show that injecting drug users contribute to 3.8% of new HIV infections. Therefore it’s important to educate injecting drug users on how to prevent HIV infection.
“Plans are underway for KANCO to intensify its harm reduction activities in Mombasa as the region is a hub of injecting drug users. Meanwhile KANCO is continuing with advocacy at the national level in a bid to ensure the government incorporates harm reduction strategies and measures to help attain zero new HIV infections.”
Greater political will to prioritise such programmes over the war on drugs is far more likely to help people like Helena, and ultimately be more effective in reducing the HIV epidemic.
*Name changed to protect identity