amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Drug Use Fueling Epidemics in the East

Congressional briefing examines alarming spread of HIV in Eastern Europe and Asia

March 26, 2007 - Injection drug use is fueling HIV/AIDS epidemics in both Asia and Eastern Europe. An estimated 8.6 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in Asia and in Eastern Europe 1.7 million people are infected—a twentyfold increase in less than a decade.

A March 5 Congressional briefing examined the challenges posed by the rapidly emerging HIV epidemics of Asia and Eastern Europe. The briefing featured a panel of international experts who explained how injection drug use and a dearth of harm reduction programs are driving these epidemics. Dr. Christine Lubinski, executive director of the HIV Medicine Association, moderated the panel. The briefing was organized and co-sponsored by amfAR, Physicians for Human Rights, and the HIV Medicine Association.

Dr. Chris Beyrer, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD, provided an overview of HIV and injection drug epidemics throughout Eastern Europe and Asia, and stressed the implications of not addressing the connection between drug use and HIV.

Vietnam, where the number of people living with HIV has doubled since 2002, was a main focus of the briefing. Dr. Ted Hammett of Abt Associates, Inc., spoke about the success of AIDS advocates in changing some of Vietnam’s strict laws and policies regarding drug use and harm reduction. Dr. Don Des Jarlais, of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute, Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, explained why both the drug trade and drug use were on the rise in the China-Vietnam border region. He talked about his involvement with community groups and local officials in their efforts to implement needle exchange programs and support services for families affected by injection drug use.

Dr. Terry Mason of Physicians for Human Rights read a statement from Duong Truong Thuy, a Vietnamese member of the amfAR/TREAT Asia program known as the Asian Community for AIDS Treatment and Advocacy (ACATA). Thuy, a former injection drug user who tested positive for HIV in 2003, wrote about the dire need for expanded harm reduction efforts in Vietnam.

Harm reduction might be viewed by some as condoning criminal behavior, he said, “but isn’t it more criminal when you know how to save people’s lives and you don’t do anything about it?” he asked.

Thuy acknowledged his country’s progress in implementing policies to address HIV among injection drug users, but said there was much more to be accomplished.

“To significantly reduce the spread of HIV in Vietnam and in the world as a whole, IDUs can no longer be overlooked or hidden by societies,” he said. “The urgent need to introduce and support harm reduction programs to scale, including needle and syringe exchange programs, cannot be [overstated]. Furthermore, we must put an end to stigma and discrimination and recognize the contributions individuals with drug dependency can make to society.”