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Aug 21, 2007

8th ICAAP: Asian drug users claim the right to speak for themselves

In an attempt to bring the needs and views of one the most HIV-vulnerable groups front and centre on the AIDS agenda, drug users in Asia launched their first regional coalition in Colombo yesterday.

Evidence indicates that a large part of Asia's HIV epidemic is the result of preventable HIV transmission among injection drug users. Of the estimated seven million people living with HIV in Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Myanmar, parts of India, Pakistan and China, for example, more than half are thought to inject drugs.

A group of drug users from across Asia have now come together to set up the regional section of the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD-Asia).

INPUD-Asia is led by Anan Pun, a founding member of Recovering Nepal, a national drug user network in Nepal. Mr Pun travelled to Sri Lanka to encourage his Asian peers to unite their efforts at improving the health and social care of people using and recovering from drug dependence.

"Through INPU-Asia, drug user communities in the region will be able to get support for activities such as advocacy and strengthen capacity of drug user representatives," said Mr Pun. "We hope that this network will lead to greater inclusion of drug user communities in the universal access framework and to improvements in addressing their needs."

The network members highlighted how funding support for drug-related activities is far behind that of most other HIV-related needs and priorities, despite what is known about drug use as a major driver of the epidemic. Out of about USD 8 billion spent on tackling HIV across the world each year, preventing the spread of HIV among drug users could cost as little as USD 200 million per year. Nevertheless, estimated coverage of harm reduction services for users in Asia, for example, dropped from just over 5% in 2003 to about 3% two years later.

"We are people from around the world who use drugs. We are people who have been marginalized and discriminated against; we have been killed, harmed unnecessarily, put in jail, depicted as evil, and stereotyped as dangerous and disposable," says a statement describing the global goals of the network. "Now it is time to raise our voices as citizens, establish our rights and reclaim the right to be our own spokespersons striving for self-representation and self-empowerment."

INPUD-Asia aims to provide a strong mechanism for representation and involvement of people using drugs across Asia through advocacy, education and networking.

"Ultimately the network should lead to positive changes and a reduction in the HIV vulnerability of drug users," Mr Pun added.

With an estimated 6.5 million people currently injecting drugs in Asia, the new network has a potentially huge constituency.


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