Feature story

HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe will be highlighted at Vienna AIDS conference

15 March 2010

A version of this story was first published at unodc.org

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé at a press conference held March 10 to discuss AIDS 2010.

The rapidly growing AIDS epidemic in Eastern Europe, fuelled primarily by unsafe injecting drug use, will be a key focus of the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010), to be held in Vienna in July.

"To break the trajectory of the HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe, we must stop new infections among injecting drug users and their partners," said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé at a press conference held March 10 to discuss AIDS 2010. "People using drugs have a right to access the best possible options for HIV prevention, care and treatment."

People using drugs have a right to access the best possible options for HIV prevention, care and treatment.

Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS

The United Nations, through the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and UNODC, is supporting the AIDS 2010 conference, to be held from 18 to 23 July 2010, which is organized by the International AIDS Society, a non-governmental organization.

Around 25,000 people working in the field of HIV, including policymakers, legislators, researchers, people living with HIV and others committed to working on AIDS issues will attend the conference, whose theme, Rights Here, Right Now, emphasizes the central importance of human rights in responding to HIV.

By holding the conference in Vienna, the organizers will highlight the situation in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, regions experiencing a fast growing epidemic largely through unsafe injecting drug use. An estimated 1.5 million people are living with HIV in these regions. Sharing needles and injection equipment is thought to be three times more likely to transmit HIV than sexual intercourse.

"We can and must reverse the HIV epidemic, first of all by preventing the spread of drug use, and then by providing treatment to addicts. In this comprehensive programme, HIV-targeted measures include providing clean injecting equipment, opioid substitution and antiretroviral therapy," said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa.

Life on the edge

Yet, as the results published last week in The Lancet show, injecting drug users often have little or no access to evidence-informed comprehensive HIV services. Globally, only two needles and syringes are distributed to injecting drug users per month and only 8 per cent of injecting drug users receive opioid substitution therapy (Mathers et al, 2010).

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa speaking at a press conference held March 10 to discuss AIDS 2010.

Many of today’s drug users live a life on the margins of society: they can be arrested, even for possessing a clean needle, and sent to prison, where the perfect environment is created for HIV and TB to spread. Or they can be confined to compulsory drug detention centres, often with no due legal process, where they are shackled and beaten in the name of drug “treatment” but with no access to any medically supervised remedies for drug dependency.

“We must focus our efforts to create evidence-based harm reduction measures that work, helping drug users protect their health and the health of the broader community—including preventing HIV infection,” said Mr Sidibé during his intervention at the 53rd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. “Harm reduction is an effective and important form of HIV prevention and a key component of our pledge for universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support”.

Effective harm reduction approaches include access to clean needles, opioid substitution therapy for opiate users, access to antiretroviral therapy and reducing sexual transmission of HIV from drug users to their sexual partners through condom promotion.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on Member States to ensure that people who are struggling with drug addiction be given equal access to health and social services, and asserted, “No one should be stigmatized or discriminated against because of their dependence on drugs.”

UNODC is the lead agency within UNAIDS for HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for injecting drug users and in prison settings. It works in 55 priority countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, South and South-East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, helping countries to provide drug users, prisoners and people vulnerable to human trafficking with comprehensive evidence-informed HIV services.