Lao PDR: Injecting drug use a painful issue
Lao and overseas officials have discussed measures to reduce the risk of HIV virus transmission associated with injecting drug use (IDU). Speaking at the opening ceremony of the HIV/AIDS Asia Regional Programme Stakeholder Meeting yesterday, Deputy Minister of Health Dr Bounkouang Phichit said that a rapid assessment has been carried out which showed that injecting drug use was an emerging issue in Laos.
Even though the number of injecting drug users is estimated to be small, health officials cannot afford to be complacent in terms of HIV prevalence because known cases may be just the tip of the iceberg. "We are concerned about an assessment of the two northern provinces of Phongsaly and Huaphan, where HIV prevalence among injecting drug users was 1.5 percent," he said. A programme has already started to distribute clean syringes in the two provinces, as well as providing other support services to drug addicts.
There are challenges that we will have to face in the near future, Dr Bounkouang said. Our peers have been informed and we need to test drug users for HIV, as currently we don't have any reports yet on who is HIV positive and should be referred for ARV treatment. In addition, he said, we need to start a harm minimisation campaign, and at least educate injecting drug users about the risks they are taking if they share needles, and let them know about the dangers of drug use while providing them with clean syringes if they are addicted.
Another challenge is that Global Fund Round 11 will not meet again until 2014. "But we still need to take further HIV prevention measures among drug users and refer positive drug users for ARV treatment," Dr Bounkouang said. He also requested further cooperation from AusAid, in terms of both financial and technical capacity.
Vice Chairman of the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision, Mr Kou Chansina, said that as people are well aware, many countries are facing major problems in terms of drug addiction, HIV prevalence and other related social issues that hamper socio-economic development.
Over the past years, friendly countries and international organisations have provided financial and technical assistance to the Lao government in its fight against drug use and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
"However, the government and people are still facing many problems and there are many challenges to be addressed in order to achieve a gradual reduction of both drug abuse and AIDS," said Mr Kou.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Representative to Laos, Mr Leik Boonwaat, said that as a cosponsor of the UNAIDS and UN Overseas Direct Assistance programmes, it has embraced the new Global Strategy of UNAIDS - getting to Zero - for 2011-15. The new strategy includes 10 ambitious goals, among which is prevention of all new HIV infections among injecting drug users.
The high level meeting culminated in the adoption of a political declaration on HIV/AIDS. The declaration includes bold targets to be met prior to 2015. These include a reduction of sexual transmission of HIV by half before 2015, the reduction of transmission of HIV among people who inject drugs by 50 percent by 2015, and the elimination of mother-tochild-transmission of HIV.
There must also be effective provision of treatment for all people living with HIV, among other targets. These targets are admittedly ambitious but they are attainable. They can best be achieved through the collective efforts of governments and NGOs, with support from donor partners and the UN, among others.
"The good news is that so far HIV infections in Laos remain at relatively low levels, with concentrated epidemics among some subpopulations, such as people who inject drugs and in specific geographic locations,"
Mr Boonwaat said. The HIV and AIDS Asia Regional Programme in Laos forms a critical part of the national HIV response, particularly since no other programme exists to protect people who use drugs and their intimate partners from getting infected with HIV.
First Secretary of the Australian Embassy to Laos, Ms Katheryn Bennett, and Director of the Centre for HIV/AIDS/STI, Dr Chansy Phimphachanh, also attended the meeting.