News / Asia

After Decades of Silence, Drug Users Gain Seat At AIDS Conference

FILE - Flowers are laid as tributes to those killed in the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, at the base of a large sign for the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, July 20, 2014.
FILE - Flowers are laid as tributes to those killed in the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, at the base of a large sign for the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, July 20, 2014.
Anita Powell

Intravenous drug users at the International AIDS Conference say their particular needs have been overlooked in broad efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

But that has changed this year, as a group of drug users has been allowed space in the venue. They hope their presence and their voices will lead to greater progress in the fight against AIDS.

Ruth says she has heard every argument against her longtime heroin use.

“People who use drugs aren’t aliens. They aren’t bent on self-destruction or interested in punching your grandmother for her TV,” Ruth said. “We’re just all making our way in this world as best we can, and some people find that drugs help them do that, and some people don’t. And I really don’t think it should be the business of those who don’t to mess with the business of those who do.”

Ruth asked us to leave her surname out of this story because heroin is illegal in her native Australia.

IV drug users

Most people view so-called recreational drugs as potentially deadly addictions. But, Ruth argues, that does not mean that regular IV drug users like her deserve to be marginalized in discussions about their elevated risk of acquiring HIV.

And so, for the first time, after years of lobbying, a small booth in the corner at this year’s conference hall proclaims: People Who Use Drugs. A member of the community also addressed the conference during the closing ceremony.

The drug users’ stand is adorned with eye-searing paintings of the five-pointed cannabis leaf, the rounded coca leaf and a splotch of bright pink something that Ruth says is a type of opium poppy.

The booth, she is quick to point out, does not dispense any illegal drugs.

But, she says, it provides visibility for a large segment of the HIV-positive community - one that was among the epidemic’s first victims, but which remains nearly silent in discussions about the illness.

Ruth says that the medical community should consider the particular circumstances of drug users, instead of flatly condemning drugs. She says the AIDS community is slowly coming around to this idea.

“I think it’s becoming more and more difficult for the international HIV and AIDS community to exclude drug users. It’s just becoming silly to do so if we’re going to tackle this epidemic, we need to be looking at the environments that allow HIV to flourish, and certainly criminalization of both sex work and drug use are the best friends of HIV,” she says.

New infections

Susie McLean, a senior adviser on HIV and drug use at the International HIV/AIDS Alliances, agrees, noting that if you exclude data from sub-Saharan Africa, 30 percent of all new HIV infections worldwide are among drug users.

“They’re not a marginal group in terms of the HIV dynamics,” McLean says. “They’re a primary group. But one of the issues that concerns us that we have tried to get across at this conference, certainly the amount of funding that those populations receive and that the organizations that are serving those populations.”

That may change following a new recommendation from the World Health Organization on the use of Naloxone, a lifesaving drug that can reverse overdoses of drugs like heroin and methadone. But the drug is controversial: some critics argue that drug users will view the antidote as an insurance policy of sorts, and become more reckless.

McLean says her group supports Naloxone, and also wants people to change the way they see drug users.

“Drug users are people like us. They’re our brothers and our sisters, our mothers and our fathers, our sons and our daughters. And we think that a lot of the problem that goes on in public policy is what I tend to call “othering” -- in which we say that people who use drugs are other people over there, and that they’re bad,” McLean says.

“And so what we try to stress is that people who use drugs are people like us. Sometimes they need help and support, always they need human rights. And the more we respond in that kind of way that’s about health and rights, the more possible it is to end HIV,” she adds.

Ruth says she wants, as her ultimate goal, the decriminalization of some illegal drugs - she argues that the criminalization of drugs is driven by politics. And like many other drug decriminalization advocates, she says oversight and regulation will make drugs safer to use and decrease the impact of illegal drug syndicates.

That is a fight that she may or may not win - but for the first time ever at a major AIDS conference, she has been welcomed into the fight against AIDS.

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs