By Pontsho Pilane - Mail & Guardian

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted life-saving harm-reduction services for people who use drugs across the globe, the latest Global State of Harm Reduction report has revealed. It is the most comprehensive independent analysis on harm reduction policy and practice around the world.

People who use drugs were unable to access exchange programmes (where they swap their used needles for sterile ones) or opioid substitution therapy (OST) where health workers prescribe legal drugs — such as methadone or buprenorphine — that quell withdrawal symptoms. 

People who inject drugs are at high risk of being infected with HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C if they don’t have access to harm reduction programmes. A 2011 study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation showed that OST programmes help to decrease the use of illegal drugs, deaths caused by overdose and new HIV infections among people who use drugs.

The latest report states that movement restrictions during the pandemic made it difficult, and in many instances impossible, for people who use illegal drugs to access these programmes, while service providers had to reduce their number of working days or close entirely.