Experts debate harm reduction policy for drug users
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Article from Vientiane Times
Author: Panyasith Thammavongsa
Newspaper section: International Cooperation
Vientiane, 18th march 2010 - Representatives from more than 10 government and international organisations yesterday gathered in Vientiane to discuss policies and law enforcement schemes aimed at harm reduction strategies for HIV/AIDS and injecting drug users.
The Lao Commission for Drug Control and Supervision and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) conducted the workshop to exchange information and lessons learned on policies and law enforcement strategies in Myanmar in the context of HIV/AIDS harm reduction and injecting drug users.
"It is my great pleasure to attend this workshop in support of the HIV/AIDS Asia Regional Programme (HAARP) and Country Flexible Programme (CFP) in Myanmar and to exchange experiences with Laos," UNODC Representative Mr Leik Boonwaat said at the opening of the event.
He said the HAARP and CFP contribute to a more comprehensive approach to drug control efforts in Laos, bringing together supply, demand and harm reduction in a three pronged strategy.
This supports the goals of the National Drug Control Master Plan (2009-13) which was approved in 2009 and includes a strategic pillar dealing with HIV prevention.
"The concept of harm reduction is new in Laos. Historically many countries in South East Asia have not fully supported harm reduction because of the belief that it will conflict with law enforcement goals," he said.
Mr Boonwaat said two weeks ago he was in Muang Mai district in Phongsaly province where cases of injecting drug users (IDU) were first reported about two years ago. He went to nearby Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and was told there were about 5,000-6,000 IDUs in the area with a 45 percent rate of HIV.
Muang Mai and Dien Bien Phu are both located along one of the major drug trafficking routes in the Golden Triangle area and both Lao and Vietnamese law enforcement officials have reported significant increases in drug related cases in the last year.
"We are lucky there is still a low prevalence of HIV and AIDS in Laos. We still have a good chance to prevent the situation of high IDU and HIV prevalence seen in the countries surrounding Laos," he said.
Mr Boonwaat expressed his appreciation to the Australian government and AusAID for supporting the HAARP and CFP and urged workshop participants to contribute to constructive and active discussions on effective measures that would help Laos be better prepared to address the threats from drugs, IDU and HIV/AIDS and maintain its low prevalence status in the region.
There are more than 4.6 million IDUs in Asia, with over 16 percent being HIV positive, although in some countries this figure is as high as 30 or even 50 percent, according to First Secretary to the Australian Embassy to Laos, Ms Raine Dixon.
"We must be brave in creating a clearer and more enabling legal and policy environment in each of our countries. Law enforcement agencies play a crucial role in ensuring the success of HIV prevention programmes among drug users," she said.
"Without their support, public health and NGO workers cannot implement HIV prevention programmes effectively."
The Australian government has been supporting law enforcement and HIV prevention activities through HAARP.
A comprehensive law and policy review related to drug use and HIV prevention was undertaken in 2009. This provided an overview of the legal situation related to harm reduction in the Mekong countries, Ms Dixon said.
Director of the Dermatology Centre and Co-chair of the National Task Force on HIV and Drugs, Dr Bounpheng Sorduangden, also co-chaired the workshop.