Health and Development Challenges
Despite rapid economic growth over the past 2 decades, the Lao PDR remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in South East Asia. Economic disparities in the country have been observed, notably in rural areas that still lack development assistance. While the efforts of the Lao PDR in eliminating opium cultivation and addiction resulted in a 94% decrease in opium production and over 80% in the number of addicts by 2006, recent increases in the opium planted area in 2008 and 2009 suggest that the sustainability of opium elimination is still fragile. Without immediate and continued Alternative Development, ex-poppy farmers may revert to growing the illicit crop for the lack of a better alternative. The current economic crisis causing price drops in cash crops such as maize coupled with increases in the prices of household commodities contributes to the challenges faced by the ex-farmers.
The emergence of Amphetamine Type Stimulants (ATS) and other synthetic drugs over the past decade also marks an alarming new trend that is now known to primarily affect urban youth in the major cities and rural youth on trafficking routes. with is an estimated 40,000 ATS users in the country, according to the Lao Commission on Drug Control and Supervision.
While the number of Injecting Drug Users (IDUs) is currently still relatively low and confined essentially to border areas and along trafficking routes -unsuspecting drug mules lured by traffickers who exploit their vulnerability and lack of knowledge- there are major concerns that if the trend remains unchecked, the country may face an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the near future. Instances of injecting drug use have been observed, as some former opium addicts switch to IV administration to obtain more out of the drug. Moreover, the emergence of ATS as the drug of choice in younger circles also denotes an added risk as ATS are known to induce risky sexual behavior. The recent appearance of crystal methamphetamine on the market (a high purity ATS in a powder form that can be injected) also contributes to escalated HIV/AIDS and other infections resulting from drug abuse.