The spread of HIV among injecting drug users continues to fuel the HIV epidemic in many countries, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia. The Reference Group to the United Nations on HIV and Injecting Drug Use, an independent expert group to the United Nations, has warned that to control the spread of HIV among injecting drug users countries must pursue evidence-based strategies that are protective of human rights.

The Reference Group estimates that there are 16 million injecting drug users worldwide, of whom 3 million are thought to be HIV positive.

As reported by UNAIDS in its recent Global Report on the HIV/AIDs epidemic, many countries have managed to stabilise or achieve significant declines in rates of new HIV infections. Despite these important gains, however, HIV among injecting drug users continues to fuel the epidemic in many countries, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia.

To achieve similar success in controlling the rapid spread of HIV among injecting drug users, it is imperative that countries pursue evidence-based strategies that are protective of human rights affirms the Reference Group in a Consensus Statement released in December:

'Interventions that violate human rights, or are not supported by evidence of their effectiveness in reducing HIV and drug related harms, should not be part of a country’s strategy to respond to HIV among people who use drugs.'”

To achieve maximal impact these interventions need to be implemented together and as part of a comprehensive package of interventions to reduce the harms associated with injecting drug use. The Reference Group report that although the number of countries that have introduced these core HIV prevention services is growing, the scale of these programmes in the majority of countries is inadequate to prevent the spread of HIV among injecting drug users.

The Consensus Statement highlights the critical role of law enforcement and criminal justice systems in effectively preventing drug use related HIV transmission through working in partnership with the health sector to optimise access to HIV prevention, treatment and care for people who use drugs. Legislation and police activity should not hinder access to drug treatment services or clean injecting equipment. Effective drug treatment and HIV prevention and care should also be available to people in prison.

Acknowledging the importance of investing in drug treatment services that have been proven to reduce drug use and the risk of HIV, the Reference Group calls for the closure of “detention centres that impose arbitrary confinement and human rights abuses on drug users for ‘drug treatment’ and which offer no evidence-based treatment for drug dependence or HIV.

Further, the Reference Group calls for “an end to the imprisonment of people who have committed no crime other than drug use or possession for personal use.

The Consensus Statement was developed by the Reference Group at the request of the United Nations to inform the policy development and priority setting by UN agencies involved in addressing HIV and injecting drug use. The Consensus Statement draws on research examining the effectiveness of interventions to address HIV and injecting drug use and their impact in differing contexts around the world. In this Consensus Statement the Reference Group identifies key regional issues of concern and outlines recommendations for action.

Click here to read the full report.

The Reference Group to the United Nations on HIV and Injecting Drug Use was established in 2002 and provides independent advice to the United Nations system on matters related to injecting drug use and HIV. The Group consists of experts from around the world and includes researchers, clinicians and representatives from civil society organisations.