Harm Reduction: How Australia Stopped HIV

In 1985 before the introduction of needle and syringe programmes (NSP) 90% of Australian injection drug users reported sharing injection equipment. By 1994 following introduction of NSPs this figure had fallen to 20%. In 2009 this figure was around 15% possibly reflecting the constant number of distributions from NSP programmes over the previous decade.

One of the most powerful modes of resistance to the spread of HIV/AIDS is Harm Reduction (HR) measures.

In Australia, HR exists as one of three pillars of Harm Minimisation (HM) – our official illicit drug control policy. The other two pillars are Supply Reduction and Demand Reduction. Reduction in supply receiving the lions share of funding directs energy at reducing international and domestic supply. Reduction in demand receiving less funding delivers programmes and initiatives designed to reduce the demand for drugs within communities.

Harm Reduction receiving the least funding from the HM pile targets the harm to individuals that eventuates from behaviour. HR has always drawn condemnation from conservative groups because of the association with drug use and sex. Initially men who have sex with men (MSM). Then later through maximal exploitation of drug using pop culture. Nonetheless, study after study comparing countries and districts within countries to have implemented HR or not done so, show a stunning success in favour of HR.

This post will look almost exclusively at IV drug use. HR for Injection Drug Users (IDU) includes provision of clean needles and sterile water, swabs, sharps containers for disposal and specialised filters capable of removing bacteria. Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) including methadone and buprenorphine and safe injecting facilities are pivotal aspects of HR. Heroin on prescription is not available in Australia but has shown unprecedented success as a HR measure where it has been implemented.

Despite the evidence supporting HM as an effective policy and the reality that Supply Reduction [law enforcement] is the most highly funded pillar, Aussies are still subject to notions such as “Tough on drugs” and code words such as Drug Free Australia’s Harm Prevention. Intuitively it sounds fine. Why minimise harm if you can prevent it?

Yet on examination “harm prevention” is the abandonment of HM for the reintroduction of Just Say No approaches. Known to have had deleterious effects on self esteem, no effect on lowering drug use and providing the field upon which drug use flourished, Just Say No quite simply failed, and failed Epically. Today of course, skeptics are well aware of how beliefs and behaviours are reinforced through attacking them. Harm Prevention even more so is code for punitive, custodial and forced behaviour control.

It is at times perplexing as to why so much energy is spent on attacking HM entirely. Supply Reduction however is based in part upon the reality that people want, seek, use and enjoy illicit drugs. Education to accompany this is open and honest – not promotion of illicit drug use . Yet to the conservative mind the idea that their children, friends or the community at large is the demographic from which drug demand comes, is morally untenable.

With HR it is aspects of this pillar that equally cannot be accepted. To the conservative mind, just as condoms cause AIDS and promote sexual promiscuity so too do clean needles, safe injecting facilities and safe injecting education encourage drug use. Drug Free Australia write:

We need to re-focus our drug policy and practice on an approach that prioritises primary prevention, if we are to see any real change in the health and wellbeing of our current and future generations of young people. We need to acknowledge that Australia has one of the highest rates of drug use, because of a priority on Harm Minimisation rather than Harm Prevention, and we now need to take a leaf out of the books of the policy makers in the UK and United States. Both these countries have given greater emphasis to prevention initiatives, while still aiming to help people who are drug dependent, to recover.

The towering dishonesty inherent in this nonsense is typical of the tactics used by DFA in what has become over just a few years, one of the most immoral lobbying groups on the illicit drug landscape. Australia has high levels of cannabis use and abuse. This is handy in arguing that we have high drug use generally. A synopsis of the above is simply: Harm Minimisation has caused Australia to have one of the highest drug use levels in the world. We should be doing what America and the UK do.

The UK get a mention because they reclassified cannabis to a Class B (like speed/other amphetamines) from a Class C drug and punish users accordingly. Of 2.3 million USA prisoners in 2010, over 65% or 1.5 million meet DSM IV medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction. On top of this another 458,000 have a history that meets DSM IV criteria for addiction, were under the influence when they committed their crime, committed a crime to finance the purchase of drugs or were incarcerated for a drug law violation.

Between 1960 and 1990 official crime rates in Finland, the USA and Germany were similar. Incarceration in Finland dropped 60%, remained stable in Germany and quadrupled in the USA, driven primarily by drug convictions.

Today around around 80% of USA prisoners are incarcerated due to illicit drugs. 11% are receiving some type of “treatment”. The last thing Aussies need is a dose of the USA nightmare.

What of the impact of changing our strategy on HIV and consequently other types of blood borne virus transmission? The graph below is from a TED talk by Sereen El-Feki, vice-chair of the Global Commission on HIV and the law:

HIV infection in Injection Drug Users

Whilst Thailand and Russia have ignored Harm Reduction and Australia and Switzerland have embraced it the USA and Malaysia employed only some Harm Reduction techniques. Should Australia embrace USA tactics our prison population will explode, HIV infection in IV drug users will increase by about eight times the present rate and treatment – presently some of the best in the world with plunge to 11%. The cost to the public health purse would simply gut present programmes and destroy any hope of improvement for say, dental, mental health, public hospital care, nursing home care etc.

There is a 4 minute out-take from Sereen El-Feki’s TED talk in April this year below. Or download MP3 here.

The first case of AIDS was reported in Australia in 1983. At that time morbidity rates to rival World War II were expected. Following the innovative approach of HR, levels of infection in all demographics fell from 2,500 per year to 500 in the decade following inception of HR. This infection rate has remained stable.

At the time, initiation of clean needle supply contravened the states Drug Offensive which, already highly criticised, had regrettably escalated drug use and criminalisation via the failed “Just Say No” approach. The pilot programme ran from St. Vincents Drug and Alcohol Service on November 13 1986. It was run in the suburb of Darlinghurst. An evaluation recommended they should be adminstered by social workers, drug agencies, pharmacies, medical professionals and urged:

The urgent widespread introduction of needle exchange programmes in all states and territories

There needed to be an amendment to the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act following which NSW pharmacies sold “anti-AIDS kits”. By mid 1989 there were 40 public outlets run across Sydney. By 1994 there were 250 outlets run by NGOs, government agencies and pharmacists distributing 3.5 million syringes annually. For the year 1993-1994 10.3 million syringes were distributed across Australia. The USA with 15 times the population of Australia distributed 8 million syringes in 1994-1995.

More comprehensive analyses refuted the concerns of increasing drug use. No increase in drug use was seen in any country that had instigated needle exchange and more so, attendance at rehabilitation and abstinence programmes had increased. Australia’s Commonwealth Department of Health (now Dept. of Health and Ageing) estimated that 25,000 cases of HIV were averted in the 12 years from 1988 – 2000 due to needle exchange alone.

The infection rate among Aussie IDU sat at around 3%. Users who were also MSM had an infection rate of 27%. In Russia where HR for drug users was denied, the figure for IDU was between 75 and 90%. One study in 1997 looked at 81 European cities with and without needle exchange programmes. Seroprevalence (measured from the presence of HIV within blood taken from used syringes) increased 5.9% annually in cities without clean needle distribution, and decreased 5.8% in cities with needle exchange.

In an astonishing comparison, Edinburgh with no NSP experienced a 65% HIV infection rate amongst IDU. Glasgow, less than an hours drive away and with NSP experienced a 4.5% increase in HIV infection amongst IDU. The one issue Australia faced was return of used syringes. Users were placing them in sharps bins. Yet to return any syringes to Exchanges meant risking being questioned by police. A used syringe is evidence of illicit drug use and this acted as a disincentive to return items for safe disposal.

Of note however is that fears and front page headlines of beach goers and joggers stepping on syringes and undergoing “agonising waits” for blood tests to be cleared of HIV infection are out of proportion. HIV dies very quickly once outside the body and syringes on beaches have been discarded into drains, washed out to sea and then beached. Nonetheless despite the absence of actual transmission it is an unpleasant experience which can be lessened by removing all offences for possession of a used syringe.

Clearly, Australia’s decision to take the necessary steps and bring together members of drug using demographics, gay rights advocates and prostitutes collectives and allow them to consult upon and shape this programme was one of it’s greatest public health initiatives ever.

Between 2000-2009 NSPs have averted 32,050 new cases of HIV and 96,666 Hepatitis C infections. Needles distributed increased from approximately 27 million to 31 million in that decade. For every one dollar invested, four dollars have been saved. 140,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years were gained over the same decade.

Still, conservative biblical fundamentalist group Drug Free Australia boldly inform us that Return On Investment is quite wrong and should show an expense. In earlier posts you can access from the tag on the right, I highlight how they cherry pick phrases and select data out of context. At other times they simply dismiss WHO findings based solely on the reviews of just one Swedish researcher, Dr Kerstin Käll.

So to be very clear, Dr Kerstin Käll, working for the Swedish government who are dodging UN demands to establish more Needle Exchanges and accelerate HR or remain in breach of the international right to health, conducted no research but criticised methodology that was favourable of NSP success. Her own research argues regular testing for HIV is more of a prevention – yes prevention – than clean needle supply.

It’s easy to get confused because whilst Käll supports NSP programmes as reducing hepatitis C in prisons DFA refute any change in HCV attributable to NSP programmes… anywhere. They also lobby stridently against the establishment of needle exchange in Australian prisons. Of course, despite the evidence above they insist the impact of NSP on HIV is “inconclusive”.

Ultimately it’s irrefutable how successful Harm Reduction has been in controlling the spread of blood borne viruses. Paramount amongst these is HIV, Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B. The most significant and visionary measure to now apply would include steps to decriminalisation and regulation.

Today however, this is where Australia is falling behind.

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About @advodiaboli
I'm not really a cast iron flying pig.

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