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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs