The high road is in harm reduction

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted life-saving harm-reduction services for people who use drugs across the globe, the latest Global State of Harm Reduction report has revealed. It is the most comprehensive independent analysis on harm reduction policy and practice around the world. 

People who use drugs were unable to access exchange programmes (where they swap their used needles for sterile ones) or opioid substitution therapy (OST) where health workers prescribe legal drugs — such as methadone or buprenorphine — that quell withdrawal symptoms. 

People who inject drugs are at high risk of being infected with HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C if they don’t have access to harm reduction programmes. 

A 2011 study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation showed that OST programmes help to decrease the use of illegal drugs, deaths caused by overdose and new HIV infections among people who use drugs. 

The latest report states that movement restrictions during the pandemic made it difficult, and in many instances impossible, for people who use illegal drugs to access these programmes, while service providers had to reduce their number of working days or close entirely. 


“Harm reduction services such as sterile needle and syringe programmes save lives and are cost-effective. Yet the number of countries providing these services has effectively stalled for six consecutive years,” said Naomi Burke-Shyne, the executive director of Harm Reduction International

“Covid-19 has disrupted health services worldwide but it has pushed many governments to successfully implement solutions to the overdose, HIV and hepatitis crises as part of their emergency Covid-19 responses, paving the way for their permanent implementation around the world.”

Researchers found that harm reduction implementation has worsened across the world, with approximately half of the countries with injecting drug users not providing any sterile needles and syringe programmes or OST. 

Most of these programmes in sub-Saharan African countries — except South Africa and Tanzania — require people who use drugs to come to the facilities in person for their treatment and to collect sterile needles and syringes, which meant that services were suspended in some countries during lockdowns to curb Covid-19 infections. 

Experts and activists say the impact of the pandemic restrictions is unclear but an increase in the use of illegal drugs and in people experiencing withdrawals is likely. 

The number of countries implementing harm reduction services has decreased from 86 to 84 since 2018.

Additionally, the use of stimulant drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine is rising worldwide, while punitive drug policies are jeopardising the public health approach  

“Everyone has a right to health and to be treated with respect and equality — regardless of gender, sexuality, race, nationality, legal status or drug use. The compassionate and inclusive approach that guides harm reduction is essential to achieving good health for all,” says Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health. 

“Harm reduction can be a model of integrated service delivery that centres the person, takes into account their intersectional vulnerabilities, and provides programmes that help them achieve better health.” 

At the United Nations general assembly, at the Global Commission on Drug Policy presentation, the deputy social development minister, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, called for a review of treatment protocols for drug-dependent people and a move to a “human rights-based” approach.  

She told the world governments that the global war on drugs has failed and that South Africa was considering plans to decriminalise personal drug use while focusing its police resources on dealers and illicit syndicates.

“We need to reduce the punitive, war-based language on the issue of drugs. This has not led to success in the fight against drugs. We need to begin to focus on the social welfare services, so we can focus on putting the drug user at the centre and ensuring they have access to the critical medicines that they need,” Bogopane-Zulu said. 

This strategy forms the basis of South Africa’s drug master plan, published in June, which focuses on “harm reduction” for drug users.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Pontsho Pilane
Pontsho Pilane is an award-winning journalist interested in health, gender, race and how they intersect. She holds three degrees in media studies and journalism from Wits University

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

Poachers in prisons tell their stories

Interviews with offenders provide insight into the structure of illegal wildlife trade networks

Covid-overflow hospital in ruins as SIU investigates

A high-level probe has begun into hundreds of millions of rand spent by the Gauteng health department to refurbish a hospital that is now seven months behind schedule – and lying empty

More top stories

The politics of the Zuma-Zondo showdown

Any move made by the Zondo commission head or by former president Jacob Zuma must be calculated, because one mistake from either side could lead to a political fallout

Museveni declared winner of disputed Uganda election

Security personnel out in force as longtime president wins sixth term and main challenger Bobi Wine alleges rigging.

Pay-TV inquiry probes the Multichoice monopoly

Africa’s largest subscription television operator says it is under threat amid the emerging popularity of global platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime

​No apology or comfort as another Marikana mother dies without...

Nomawethu Ma’Bhengu Sompeta, whose funeral will be held this weekend, was unequivocal in calling out the government for its response to the Marikana massacre
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…