Harm Reduction Saves Lives

A Statement for #WorldAIDSDay

HIV among people who inject drugs (PWID) is a rising problem in the Philippines that urgently needs to be addressed.

As of June 2016, 4.5% of HIV transmissions since 1984 were transmitted through the sharing of infected needles. A staggering 99% of these were detected in the past six years alone.[1] In Cebu, HIV prevalence among PWID shot up from less than 1% to 53.82% between 2009 and 2011. Yet, the impact of needle sharing to the HIV crisis remains underreported and poses a grave threat to public health if not urgently addressed.

With this in mind, NoBox Philippines expresses profound support to the filing of HIV/AIDS bills that give an inclusive and evidence-based answer to the HIV/AIDS problem. A comprehensive approach demands measures that address the needs of PWID through legislation that enables harm reduction interventions and local policies that embody its principles.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, Harm Reduction refers to policies, programmes, and principles that reduce the adverse health and socioeconomic consequences of problematic substance use—legal or illegal—without needlessly focusing on drug consumption alone. But frequently asked is: Would harm reduction even work in the Philippines?

In 2014, an Operations Research was conducted in Brgy. Kamagayan, Cebu with a needle syringe program component—a tried-and-tested harm reduction intervention[2]—to answer exactly that question. The OR created a “safe space” where people who accessed the services under the research would not be arrested for possessing drug use paraphernalia. The research was slated to last for two years; however, the needle syringe program component was suspended after merely five months due to political pressure.

And yet, the program was able to reach out to over a thousand PWID and foster a strong relationship between them and the health workers in Cebu, connecting PWID with essential health and social services: counseling, testing, education, even referrals to drug treatment, which many would not have accessed otherwise.[3]

The HIV/AIDS issue is undoubtedly a drug-related one, and NoBox Philippines believes that drug-related issues are never just about drug use. They are inextricably linked to many other factors: public health, people’s socio-economic environment, the community they thrive in, even our government’s drug policies. Neither drug use nor people who use drugs are the problem. Punitive drug policies and a culture that keeps people from asking for help through stigma and threat of arrest are what’s exacerbating the already massive HIV/AIDS problem in the country.[4]

To ensure an effective national HIV/AIDS policy, the law must provide the best interventions available to vulnerable groups in the most cost-efficient manner. It must operate under a human rights framework where people are not discriminated against based on their gender, health status, or drug use status. It must allow a supportive environment where people who use drugs are not alienated or stigmatized. 

We call on our legislators to support an inclusive and comprehensive HIV/AIDS Law that espouses principles of harm reduction and protects the rights and health of people who use drugs, their families, and their communities.

[1] Department of Health – Epidemiology Bureau, HIV/AIDS and ART Registry of the Philippines (June 2016). Available at http://www.aidsdatahub.org/hivaids-and-art-registry-philippines-june-2016-epidemiology-bureau-department-health-2016.
[2] World Health Organization, Effectiveness of sterile needle and syringe programming in reducing HIV/AIDS among injecting drug users (2004). Available at: http://www.who.int/hiv/pub/prev_care/en/effectivenesssterileneedle.pdf.
[3] Tanguay, Evaluation of Harm Reduction Service Delivery in Cebu City, Philippines (2016). Available at http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/413401468197106125/pdf/106126-WP-P132149-PUBLIC-ACS.pdf
[4] Csete J, et al, Public health and international drug policy (2016). Available at: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)00619-X/fulltext.

thumbnail image source: https://tl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandaigdigang_Araw_ng_AIDS