Drugs and crime are important, yet often neglected factors in the evolution of the HIV/AIDS pandemic

The Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, is participating in the Bangkok International AIDS Conference in his capacity as Chair of the UNAIDS Committee of Co-sponsoring Organizations (CCO), which started on 1 July 2004 and will continue till 30 June 2005.

“Drugs and crime are important, yet often neglected factors in the evolution of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. UNODC’s chairmanship of the CCO will enable us to highlight these areas and trigger action to address them”, said Mr. Costa.

The CCO serves as the forum for the United Nations agencies co-sponsoring the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and makes policy and strategy decisions for UNAIDS. During its year as Chair of the UNAIDS CCO, the UNODC will focus on the four high-risk areas for HIV/AIDS: injecting drug use, prisons, trafficking in persons, and conflict and post-conflict situations.

Worldwide, there are an estimated number of more than 13 million injecting drug users, all of them at a high risk of becoming infected with HIV. In some areas, up to 80 per cent of HIV infections result from needle-sharing among injecting drug users. Approximately 10 per cent of all HIV infections worldwide result from the sharing of contaminated injecting equipment and virtually all HIV/AIDS epidemics in developing or transitional countries, other than sub-Saharan Africa, started in drug injecting populations.

“The news is not all bad. During the past decade, we have also learned that the HIV/AIDS epidemic among injecting drug users can be stopped -- and even reversed -- if drug users are provided, at an early stage and on a large scale, with comprehensive services such as outreach, provision of clean-injecting equipment and a variety of treatment modalities, including substitution treatment. It is, however, a sad fact that less than 5 per cent, and in many high-risk areas less than 1 per cent, of all drug users have access to prevention and care services. In too many countries, drug users are simply incarcerated. This is not a solution; in fact, it contributes to the rapid increase in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS”, said Mr. Costa.

Prisons are another area of concern for the UNODC. HIV transmission rates in prisons are higher worldwide than in the surrounding community, and prison populations provide a strong bridge for the epidemic to move to the general population. The UNODC will work with governments to raise awareness of the fact that drug use, needle-sharing and sexual intercourse in prisons exists and needs to be addressed.

Another area of concern is the spread of HIV/AIDS related to human trafficking. Worldwide, several millions of trafficked girls and women are under various forms of bondage, including sexual exploitation. All these people and their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS are of concern to the UNODC.

With regard to HIV/AIDS and conflict and post-conflict situations, just on the African continent, there are 17 countries in a war/post-war environment. The concurrent presence of weak institutions, crime, violence and illegality juxtaposed with the deadly impact of the HIV virus is a fertile ground for eroding countries’ efforts to overcome mass poverty.

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