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Regional Seminar on Drugs and HIV/AIDS Responses

Hanoi (Viet Nam), 14 July 2011 - Following four days of deliberations a regional meeting on "Drugs and HIV/AIDS Responses", organized by the Government of Viet Nam and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), adopted a set of recommendations to expand training programmes for policy makers, law enforcement, the judiciary, drug control agencies and prison staff. It also called for a high-level meeting between health, police and justice at the regional level. Finally, the noted that there is not enough coordinated action among the relevant sectors, as well as with affected communities. These were all considered essential elements of a successful national response to addressing drugs and HIV.

Of the estimated 16 million people who inject drugs globally, some 2.6 million men and women who inject drugs live in the six MoU countries - mainly China. HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs reached over 70% at sub-national level in some countries at the peak of the epidemic in the late 1990s. Prevalence has since declined, but remains unacceptably high in this stigmatised population in many countries. Effective interventions exist to control and prevent new HIV infections among people who inject drugs as well as to treat drug dependence.

Yet, as elsewhere in the world, countries in East Asia are struggling to find the right balance between a "tough on drugs" stance and public health model which addresses drug use and dependence. At least 240,000 people who inject drugs are living in compulsory centres in the MoU countries where there is often limited or no access to HIV prevention services or evidence based treatment for drug dependence.

The event took place under the auspices of a 6-country Memorandum of Understanding on drug control which dates back to 1993 . The MOU member countries are: Cambodia, China, Lao People's Demographic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam. UNODC is also a member. The Seminar was also attended by delegates from Brunei Darussalam.

The overall objective of the seminar was to take stock of the HIV situation related to injecting drug use in East and South East Asia - but with a focus on the role of law enforcement, health and criminal justice practitioners in creating an enabling legal, policy and operational environment for HIV prevention services. Another objective was to exchange experiences and knowledge on challenges and opportunities for the implementation of effective responses to drugs and HIV in the region.

The Seminar was attended by senior officials from law enforcement, criminal justice and health sectors who heard from resource persons from the National Anti Drug Agency (NADA) of Malaysia, the Asian Network of People who Use Drugs (ANPUD), UNODC and the World Health Organisation, among others.

Promotion of public awareness about the nature of drug dependence and the need for public health responses is critical, along with responses that are grounded on evidence on what works and on respect to human rights. The Asian Network of People who Use Drugs (ANPUD), which was represented at the Seminar, advocated for drug dependence to be treated as a health condition, not as a criminal offence.

In addition to the review of the evidence and sharing of good practices and country cases studies, the delegates were also addressed by a panel consisting of the Director of the Hanoi Centre for HIV/AIDS, client of a MMT programme, representative of the Vietnam Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS and a family member whose three close family members have been affected by heroin dependence. In addition to the personal testimonies during the Seminar the delegates also observed first hand clients who came to take their daily dose of methadone at an MMT clinic at a district health centre in Hanoi as well as a brief visit to a needle and syringe programme site in the community. The officials heard first hand from MMT clients about the positive impacts of the programme on their health, family relations and quality of life.