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

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs