Injecting drug use and growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Middle East and North Africa region to be focus of the International Harm Reduction conference taking place in Beirut, Lebanon April 3-7 2011
Over 1000 researchers, activists, social workers and politicians from some 80 countries to attend the International Harm Reduction Association's 22nd International Conference in Beirut, Lebanon April 3-7 2011, the first to be held in the Middle East and North Africa region
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 (London, Beirut)--A growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Middle East and North African region in countries like Iran, Libya and Bahrain being driven by injecting drug use will be a major focus of the international Harm Reduction 2011 conference taking place at the Habtoor Grand Hotel Convention Centre & Spa in Beirut, Lebanon, next April. http://www.ihra.net/conference
The announcement of the event was made today on World AIDS Day. The conference, now in its 22nd year, is convened by the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA) and organised by the Conference Consortium (CC). Soins Infirmiers Développement Communautaire (SIDC) and the Middle East and North African Harm Reduction Association (MENAHRA) join both organisations as conference partners in Beirut.
The International Harm Reduction Conference has become the focal point for knowledge sharing, networking and promoting evidence-based best practice in the field of reducing harms from drugs and alcohol. The delegates include front line workers, researchers, policy makers, politicians, people from international organisations, people who use drugs and people working in criminal justice. The conferences have helped to put harm reduction on the map and to coordinate advances, innovations, evidence and advocacy in this field for the last two decades.
In 2009 the Middle East and North African Harm Reduction Association (MENAHRA) held the first regional conference on harm reduction in Beirut, Lebanon. It was a highly successful event, bringing together policy makers, religious leaders, civil society representatives, front line workers and researchers to discuss harm reduction for the first time. The international conference will build on the success of that event.
"It is appropriate that on the eve of this year's World AIDS Day we announce that the International Harm Reduction conference is finally coming to the Middle East and North Africa region," said Eli Aaraj, secretary general of SIDC and director of MENAHRA. "While a few countries have introduced harm reduction in this region significant gaps remain in the response. Injecting drug use is fuelling HIV epidemics in Iran and Libya and contributes to those in several other countries in the region. Drug-related offences result in severe penalties in this region, including the death penalty in many countries, and prison populations include many people with a history of drug use.
"The conference is an opportunity to develop the emerging interest in drug policy in the region and further promote harm reduction in the region."
Rick Lines, Executive Director of the International Harm Reduction Association, said that taking the conference in the region was long overdue and would build on the work that the organisation was undertaking with partner organisations such as MENAHRA in the region.
"The International Harm Reduction conference has a proud history of facilitating advocacy, debate and knowledge exchange in regions where capacity to implement harm reduction programs have been in need of gaining impetus.
"While there have been some encouraging advances in Harm Reduction and Policy in the MENA region in recent years, the fact remains that there are many countries in the region that continue to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to injecting drug use and HIV/AIDS and instead choose to treat drug use as a criminal justice problem rather than a public health issue. It is long overdue that IHRA is finally bringing the conference to the MENA region and it is our hope that in the long it serves as a catalyst for change."
Why Beirut? Why the MENA region?
Marginalised and criminalised populations are most affected by HIV in this region. Elevated HIV prevalence is reported in prison populations in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Libya, although data on HIV in prisons are unavailable in much of the region. Several countries in this region fall along heroin transhipment routes from Afghanistan. The impact of this is most pronounced in Iran, where it is estimated that 1.2 million people smoke, inject or ingest opiates (2.8% of the population).
Further insight into the extent to which HIV affects people who inject drugs can be gained from HIV case reporting. In Libya, for example, over 90% of HIV cases are attributable to injecting drug use. In Bahrain, this figure is reported to be 73%. In Tunisia, 34% of reported HIV cases are attributed to injecting drug use. This figure is lower in Algeria (18.4%), Israel (16%) Lebanon (8.5%) and Morocco (5%). Although the Egyptian National AIDS Program reports consistently low HIV prevalence rates, injecting drug use is a significant risk factor and is the mode of HIV transmission in 6 per cent of cases.
In many countries in the Middle East and North Africa harm reduction is still a new or emerging concept. For this reason, the building of skills and capacity of civil society organisations in harm reduction implementation and advocacy will feature strongly in this year's conference programme, and will include a dedicated stream of workshop and skills building sessions, designed specifically for participants from the MENA region.
The theme of the conference is "Building Capacity, Redressing Neglect."
"The conference in Beirut presents the opportunity for the Consortium and IHRA to use their combined resources and experience to take the event to a new location, the first time it will be held in the Middle East," said Paddy Costall, Managing Director of the Conference Consortium. "The rapid growth in harm reduction in the region, as evidenced by the creation and development of the regional network, MENAHRA, gives us all confidence in facing the new challenges this event will present. It is important that the impact and legacy are foremost in our thinking and that we use the occasion to showcase the very best of harm reduction to a new audience."
Gaps in the response are not solely an issue in countries where harm reduction is new or emerging. Even in those in which harm reduction is well established, the development of specific policies and programmes to meet the needs of women and other vulnerable populations has often been neglected. This year's conference will therefore also contain a strong focus on women, drug use and harm reduction, and provide a forum to highlight the needs of women who use drugs and other marginalised populations within the overall harm reduction response.