The first Eastern Africa Harm Reduction Conference is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya this month (26 February to 1 March). Hosted by KANCO and partners, the conference will highlight the progress that has been made on harm reduction in the region, and discuss the next steps in enabling more people who use drugs to claim their right to health.

Out of the region’s population of about 150 million, some 260,000 people are reported to use drugs. HIV infection rates are disproportionately severe among this group, with HIV prevalence estimated to be up to six times higher among people who use drugs than the general population.

Now, more than ever, Eastern Africa needs to be taking an approach to drug use that reduces its harm, through the provision of clean needles and syringes and opioid substitution therapy, rather than continuing to punish people for their drug use.

Yet the commitment from most Eastern African governments to increase access to health services for people who use drugs has been minimal or none existent. Even those health systems in the region that are beginning to respond to the challenges of drug use face huge legal and policy challenges, and lack reliable data to inform services.

Drug use is something most high-level policy makers in the region see as entirely criminal. Drug policies tend to focus on supply reduction and law enforcement, and are blind to the public health reality that people who use drugs are a vulnerable group and have overlapping relationships with other key populations and the general population. In Kenya, for example, although HIV-related discrimination is prohibited, national legislation and policy fail to offer legal protection for people who use drugs.