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Police inadvertently undermines struggle against AIDS

Police forces addicts to use contaminated needles and syringes. Trying to stop drug abuse police sometimes contributes to the spread of AIDS.

The experts, speaking after the opening of a conference on policing and reducing health risks for people who abuse drugs, said drug users are often forced to use dirty needles because they are harassed or arrested at drug treatment clinics and needle exchange sites.

"HIV epidemics in at least 20 countries in Asia and Eastern Europe are now propelled by the use of contaminated needles and injection equipment," the conference's sponsor, the Open Society Institute, said in a statement.

The institute, a private foundation founded by U.S. billionaire George Soros to promote social, political and economic reforms, provides funding for sterile injection equipment and treatment for drug addicts in Eastern Europe and Asia.

"Ministries of health emphasize access to services, while law enforcement talks about social evils and the need for harsh punishments," Daniel Wolfe, deputy director of OSI's International Harm Reduction Program, told a news conference. "The result is increased HIV infections, missed treatment opportunities, and lost lives."

Medications used to help people withdraw from drug use, including methadone and buprenorphine, are effective but "available to less than 3 percent of those in need worldwide, and the therapy is made even more inaccessible by police harassment," OSI said.

Police harassment and extortion of drug users at methadone clinics and syringe exchanges is widespread throughout Indonesia, said Aditya Anugrah Putra, a former drug user and human rights researcher with the Indonesian Drug Users' Network.

"Indonesia's government has started methadone programs that are helping to save lives, but the police wait outside methadone clinics to search patients for drugs, and they arrest syringe exchange clients at will," he said. "They treat us like criminals, when we are only trying to protect our health."

But a Russian representative said his prevention service for drug users in St. Petersburg had managed to win police cooperation.

"When we first started providing clean syringes, condoms and health information to drug users, the police made it very difficult. They even forced our outreach workers to eat the identity cards we gave out," said Alexander Tsekhanovich.

But after providing the police with educational workshops, "they feel so comfortable with us that they even visit for latex gloves, condoms and anonymous HIV tests," he said.