The International AIDS Society (IAS) will launch a virtual media center for opioid substitution therapy (OST) support in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the organization announced Tuesday at the 2011 International AIDS Conference in Rome.
There are an estimated 16 million injection drug users (IDU) in the world, 3 million of which are HIV infected, said Dr. Chris Beyrer, professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program, at a press conference. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, IDU accounts for approximately one in three new HIV infections, and in Russia that estimate bumps up to 60 percent. Beyrer noted the extreme need for governments to recognize evidence-based approaches proven to reduce new HIV infections among IDU, to include opioid treatment.
The “Virtual Knowledge Center,” launched in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute on Public Health Policy, will provide “improved knowledge and strengthened operations research capacity for scale up of HIV/OST programs for people who inject drugs by creating an increased Russian-language evidence base around OST, harm reduction and HIV, as well as specialized documents and training modules relevant to professionals, public health experts,” and others working in the field. This resource will be critical in parts of the world with severe criminal penalties for drug users, Beyrer said. Legal barriers to scientifically proven prevention services such as needle and syringe programs and OST mean hundreds of thousands of people become infected with HIV and Hepatitis C every year, according to the IAS press release.
“While we recognize that [Eastern Europe and Central Asia] are a primary focus, it is also true that the problem is emerging in some new regions,” Beyrer said, speaking of East Africa, specifically Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. “Most of this is heroin that seems to originate in Afghanistan, take a sea route through Yemen and then on to East Africa.”
He noted the recent opening of the first drug therapy center in East Africa in Dara Salam, Tanzania. The center is supported by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, and they hope to expand methodone substitution therapy services in Dar and to Zanzibar.
“These are the early days,” Beyrer said. “We still need to know how many IDUs there are and how many of them are HIV-infected in these areas.”