UNODC project to help Afghan drug users goes into action

If the AIDS epidemic is to be successfully challenged more needs to be done to provide comprehensive HIV services for drug users. UNODC has begun supporting implementation of a sub regional initiative to make such services accessible to Afghan refugees who use drugs in Iran and Pakistan, and to Afghan drug users who have returned home.

If the AIDS epidemic is to be successfully challenged in several regions more needs to be done to provide comprehensive HIV prevention and treatment services for drug users. In recognition of this, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has begun supporting implementation of a sub regional initiative to make such services accessible to Afghan refugees who use drugs in Iran and Pakistan, and to Afghan drug users who have returned home.

Under the project, ongoing since 2009 and funded by the government of the Netherlands, two grants have been awarded by UNODC to non-governmental organisations to provide services to Afghan drug users in Herat province, bordering Iran and Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan. One of the objectives of the project is to develop an enabling environment that supports a regional network of HIV services across borders so that Afghan refugees will be able to access these services when they go back to their country.

Khatiz Organisation for Rehabilitation in Herat and the Health and Social Development Organisation in Nangarhar are using mobile outreach units to offer a wide-ranging raft of interventions. These include targeted information, education and communication; distributing clean needles and syringes; promoting and distributing condoms; treating and helping prevent sexually transmitted infections; primary healthcare such as abscess management; referral to HIV voluntary counseling and testing services and antiretroviral treatment.

To build capacity of NGO staff and government officials and help to successfully implement the project, five days of training in HIV and drug use for doctors, nurses, social workers, project managers and employees from the women's prison recently took place in Kabul. During the meeting, also attended by high-level delegations from the government, UN agencies and NGOs, the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan was revealed. Dr.Mohammad Zafar, Deputy Minister of Counternarcotics, told the gathering that according to a 2005 UNODC survey, the country has one million drug users including 19,000 who inject.

According to Dr.Ajmal Sabaoon, National AIDS Control Programme Manager, Afghanistan is moving from a low-level epidemic towards a concentrated epidemic. He briefed participants on results of an Integrated Biological and Behavioral Survey (IBBS) conducted by John Hopkins University, which indicates that HIV prevalence among injecting drug users in three major cities of the country (Kabul, Herat and Mazar) has increased from 3% to 7% from 2007 to 2010.

Historically, despite this group's increased vulnerability to HIV they have not been able to access comprehensive and tailored HIV interventions. The UNODC and its partners hope that by serving those who use drugs that inroads can be made into the sub regional AIDS epidemic as a whole.

Protecting drug users against HIV is one of the nine priority areas in the UNAIDS Outcome Framework 2009-11. This can be aided by making comprehensive, evidence-informed and human-rights-based interventions, such as harm reduction and demand reduction, accessible to all who need them.