Expatica news

Russia rejects methadone to stem HIV epidemic

Moscow — Russia’s chief medical official on Wednesday acknowledged the scale of its HIV epidemic but insisted the country would not abandon its controversial opposition to methadone programmes for drug users.

Gennady Onishchenko said that HIV infections in Eastern Europe and Central Asia were "a highly important problem for all of us not only for medical but also for social reasons."

More than 60 percent of those infected with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia received the virus through intravenous drug use, Onishchenko said. More than 500,000 people are officially listed as infected in Russia.

Speaking to the third Eastern Europe and Central Asia AIDS Conference, he warned that the epidemic was now jumping to other groups through sexual contacts.

"The danger is that the epidemic will cross over from a concentrated one to a general one," he said.

Nevertheless he spoke out against providing methadone — a synthetic drug that is not injected — to heroin users.

"Russia speaks out categorically against this component in prevention programmes," Onishchenko said, adding that methadone is outlawed in Russia.

Russia offers "effective programmes" for drug users, he said. "We aren’t simply denying this problem, we are proposing our solution."

Giving methadone to drug users reduces HIV infection among the most vulnerable group and helps those infected lead more stable lives and take live-saving antiretrovirals, international campaigners say.

The International Aids Society and the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network campaign groups released a statement calling for Russia to support methadone programmes.

International speakers at the conference criticized Russia’s strategy.

Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, called methadone provision "an essential element of universal access to HIV prevention" and called for Eastern European countries to introduce the programmes.

"I fear that in this region the legal barrier to harm reduction programmes also makes injected drug users a target for harassment, driving the people most affected by this epidemic underground," Sidibe said. "I urge each country in this region to define within its own legislation the harm reduction programme it needs, just like China has done with great success."