In contrast to the rest of Southern Africa, intravenous drug users have become the group most vulnerable to the transmission of HIV in Mauritius. This has led the Mauritian government to introduce a syringe- and needle-exchange programme in a bid to stem HIV infection among Mauritian drug users.
Sexual transmission among heterosexuals is the most common way of HIV infection in Southern Africa, the region that has become the centre of the international HIV/Aids pandemic in recent years.
Mauritius is unusual in the region as the HIV prevalence rate among its population of 1,2-million people is less than 0,5%. Since 1987, 162 Mauritians have died from Aids-related illnesses. Currently, at least 2Â 345 Mauritians are living with HIV/Aids, according to official figures, but some social workers estimate the number to be about 10Â 000.
Another unusual characteristic of the epidemic in Mauritius is that drug injection with shared needles has since 2003 been the main mode of HIV transmission. The sharing of contaminated needles was responsible for 92% of new HIV infections in 2005 and 85,2% of new infections in 2006.
Social worker Cadress Runghen ascribes the increased vulnerability of drug users to HIV/Aids to the fact that anti-Aids messages focused on sexual behaviour only.
Sensitisation campaigns helped to ensure that the population was made aware of the risk of HIV infection through sexual means, leading to a drop in such infections during the 1990s.
But, says Runghen, ”nobody kept a check on the drug-addict community”. In the meantime, the HI virus has been spreading like wildfire among the members of this marginal group.
To address this and other issues, the Mauritian Parliament adopted the new HIV and Aids Act at the end of 2006, which introduced a syringe- and needle-exchange programme and methadone treatment. Methadone is used to alleviate withdrawal symptoms during the rehabilitation of drug addicts.
In just a few weeks, 2Â 000 syringes used by drug addicts have been taken out of circulation and replaced by new ones. A few hundred addicts are now being treated with methadone.
Social workers have started this programme in the capital, Port Louis, and on the outskirts of the capital at Baie-du-Tombeau, Roche Bois and Batterie CassÃ