The First Regional Harm Reduction Conference of the Middle East and North Africa region was a great success.  The event hosted by Middle East and North Africa Harm Reduction Association (MENAHRA) took place in Beirut from the 16th to the 18th November 2009.

Nearly 200 participants attended from 25 countries across (and outside of) the region. There were three full days of engaging sessions, presentations and discussions – including more than 40 speakers on a range of different topics.

The conference formally opened with speeches from the Lebanese Government, the Drosos Foundation (who have funded the MENAHRA network to date), Elie Aaraj from MENAHRA, Professor Gerry Stimson from IHRA, and Dr. Hussein Gezairi from the World Health Organization. In particular, Dr. Gezairi stated that “It is time to act” in the region – with drug use rising in many countries. Overall, the Middle East and North Africa region has a valuable opportunity to prevent extensive HIV epidemics among people who use drugs before they occur.

IDPC co-organised a parallel session with IHRA (link) and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (link) and Alliance Ukraine (link) called ‘Policy and Practice: From Global to Local’.  The session gave an overview of the international drug control framework and highlighted recent developments including legislative reform in Latin America, There was a presentation from IHRA on the global state of harm reduction followed by a presentation from the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN) on their network model.  The final presentation from Alliance Ukraine outlined the success and scale up of their harm reduction programmes as a principle recipient of the Global Fund.  All presentations highlighted the need for civil society leadership and advocacy to create enabling policy and legal frameworks for effective harm reduction programmes at the national level.  Other panel discussions involved religious leaders, parliamentarians and representatives of major international bodies. There was also a film festival, conference party and awards ceremony.

The conference was an opportunity to showcase several excellent programmes and projects across the Middle East and North Africa – some of which had received funding from MENAHRA. The topics covered at the conference included needle and syringe programmes, substitution treatments, human rights, advocacy, policies, funding, research and peer interventions. There were also many discussions about the criminalisation of people who use drugs across the region and the harm caused by such approaches. There was a great deal of energy, interaction and engagement from the participants, who included representatives from civil society, governments, donors, networks, health services, research bodies and the media.

Crucially, it was also announced that opioid substitution therapy was soon going to be implemented in three new countries in the region – Lebanon, Afghanistan and Morocco. In Morocco, it was officially announced on the eve of the conference that an agreement had been signed by the Minister of Health formally approving the use of methadone.