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Asia and the Pacific: UN Regional Task Force meeting on injecting drug use and HIV/AIDS held in India

New Delhi (India), 23 February 2011
- The UN Regional Task Force (RTF) meeting on injecting drug use and HIV/AIDS for Asia and the Pacific took place on 10 and 11 February 2011 in New Delhi, India. Established in 1997, the goal of the task force is to contribute to the reduction of HIV infection among and from injecting drug users in the Asia Pacific region, by significantly increasing coverage of comprehensive HIV interventions through regional and country level advocacy, coordination, and use of strategic information for advocacy and policy dialogue. The task force also provides opportunities for sharing information across the region. The present task force has 34 members from five constituencies: Governments, relevant UN agencies, donor partners, civil society and technical advisers.

Since 2002, the task force is being co-chaired by the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific (RSTAP) and UNODC Regional Centre for East Asia and Pacific (RCEAP), with most of its meetings held in South East Asia. To ensure a geographical balance, this year's meeting was held in South Asia, in India's capital New Delhi.

Some of the topics included in the agenda were (i) compulsory centres for drug users (CCDUS), (ii) the possibility of a needle syringe programme survey in some Asian countries, (iii) the regional strategy for harm reduction in Asia Pacific 2010-2015 as well as (iv) the key findings and recommendations of the external review of the UN RTF.

Being held in New Delhi, this year's meeting also featured two specific issues from South Asia, one of them being the growing use of pharmaceutical drugs in the region, especially through the injection route. Injection of pharmaceuticals not only increases the risk of infections like HIV and Hepatitis C, but also leads to a number of secondary health complications, which can be much more hazardous than the risks of heroin injections alone. The discussion revolved around educating both pharmaceutical retailers and drug users on the adverse health consequences of pharmaceutical injections, scale-up of treatment services, especially opioid substitution, improving diversion control mechanisms and increasing research on the subject to ensure that service provision is evidence informed.

An advocacy strategy for South Asia, which was developed as part of the joint UN project "Prevention of transmission of HIV among drug users in SAARC Countries," was also released during the meeting. The main objective of this initiative is to strengthen advocacy to address the barriers that hinder the access to and scale up of the comprehensive package of services for drug users and their sex partners. Prevention, treatment and care services remain extremely limited or unavailable in many cases or are not tailored to the specific needs of the drug users.

Under this joint activity by UNODC, UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation (WHO), country specific advocacy strategies were developed for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They were prepared following a series of national and regional consultations involving Government agencies, civil society organisations and members of the drug using community. Additionally, some issues which require resources or support at the regional level were also identified for the development of a regional advocacy strategy, which complements the national strategies. A realistic estimate of the costs required to realise the advocacy goals have also been included in the national work plans.

While each national strategy addresses the specific concerns of that country, the following themes emerged as cross cutting issues in all the countries:

  1. Lack of harmonized drug and HIV policy in the country
  2. Inadequate coverage of services for IDUs and their sex partners with/or poor quality of interventions
  3. Lack of co-ordination among various stakeholders/ agencies dealing with drug use issues
  4. Stigma and discrimination against IDUs/DUs

The challenge ahead lies in implementing the strategies so as to reduce the barriers that still prevent thousands of drug users from accessing and availing services.

As the task force itself is scheduled to come to an end, an external review has been conducted. The task force discussed the review's findings and concluded with the recommendation that its term be extended with some modifications in its operational framework, looking more closely at key issues such as membership (including increased participation of representatives from the drug using community), ensuring better impact assessment mechanisms and linkages to the currently relevant strategic priorities. The UN RTF members have identified representatives from their constituencies to work on a revised terms of reference for the same.

The UN Regional Advocacy Strategy was developed thanks to the support of AusAID, as part of the joint UN project 'Prevention of transmission of HIV among drug users in SAARC Countries'.