May 2020 - Vienna - The current COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a global health emergency and poses serious risks for certain groups of people. Ensuring continued access to health care amidst this COVID-19 pandemic is crucial in order to curb its spread and public health interventions must pay attention to marginalized communities who are at particular risk of infection. People who use drugs can be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to underlying health issues, stigma, social marginalization and higher economic and social vulnerabilities, including a lack of access to housing and health care. The prison environment is highly conducive to the transmission of infections, including COVID-19, due to several risk factors such as overcrowding and poor ventilation, as well as inadequate health services, in some countries. Despite international standards stating that people in prison have the right to health, at the same standards as other members of society, and should have access to health care services without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status, infection control measures and health services in prisons in some countries remain inadequate.
To address the challenges of providing HIV services to people who use drugs and people in prison amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, UNODC, jointly with WHO and UNAIDS, is organizing a series of regional webinars for decision makers and stakeholders. The purpose of these webinars are to provide an opportunity for decision makers and stakeholders to share their valuable experiences and best practices on providing continued access to life saving HIV services for people who use drugs and people in prison, while also implementing COVID-19 prevention and control measures. The webinars are also attended by experts and representatives from UNODC, WHO and UNAIDS, who share their technical expertise and answer participants’ questions during the subsequent Q&A sessions.
Webinars on ensuring the continuity of HIV services for people who use drugs:
These regional webinars comprised presentations from representatives from national AIDS programmes, ministries of health, drug control agencies and other relevant officials in charge of policy and programme development in the field of HIV among people who use drugs. So far, regional webinars were organized for countries in the South-East Asia and South Asia region (India, Myanmar, Nepal, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Philippines, Bangladesh, and Thailand), countries in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region (Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and countries in the Middle East and North Africa region (Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan)
The webinars have attracted more than 260 participants and provided fruitful discussion, practical examples and innovative measures adopted by these countries to overcome barriers in service provision for people who use drugs during this pandemic. A special focus was placed on shifting from daily doses to 14 days take home doses and other methods to facilitate safe access to opioid substitution therapy.
Webinars on prevention and control of HIV, TB, viral hepatitis and COVID-19 in prison:
Webinars were also organized on prevention and control of HIV, TB, viral hepatitis and COVID-19 in prison settingsfor over 200 representatives from ministries of health and justice, senior prison administration, prison officers and health care staff in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). These trainings encompassed international standards for health and human rights for people in prison, guidance on managing infections in prison, and specifically, measures to prevent and control COVID-19 in prison settings. Recommendations include reducing the number of people in prison by considering alternatives to imprisonment for minor, non-violent crimes and ensuring that prisons are part of national COVID-19 preparedness and response plans.
Further webinars are planned for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
For UNODC guidance on HIV service provision for people who use drugs and people in prison in the context of COVID-19 prevention and control - click here.