The Kenyan government will begin distributing needles to the country's estimated 50,000 injection drug users next month in a bid to slow the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases. The plan was announced last week in Mombasa, where the first pilot program will begin.
"We are trying our best to address the entire problem of drug abuse amongst the youths. We had to identify an alternative of stopping the youths from sharing needles, our attention having been drawn by the rate at which these young people were contracting HIV and other diseases, such as hepatitis," said Dr. Anisa Omar, the Coast Provincial Director of Public Health and Sanitation. "In Mombasa alone, we have over 26,000 youths who use injection drugs, with at least one out of every four being found to be HIV-positive. In Nairobi, we have 20,000 youths who are IDUs."
The Kenyan government estimates that injection drug use accounts for 4% of HIV infections and 17% of new HIV infections in Coast Province, where Mombasa is located. The government moved in 2010 to shift from addressing drug use as a criminal issue to addressing it as a public health issue.
The government plans to distribute some eight million needles to injection drug users as the plan is rolled out. It will also encourage people to be tested for HIV and will provide antiretroviral drugs, condoms, and medicines for tuberculosis, which commonly co-infects with HIV.
While the government has shifted to a public health and harm reduction approach, not everybody is on board. Anti-drug activists and some religious leaders have criticized the move.
"We will file a petition in court… these children of ours don't even have any veins remaining in their bodies," said Amina Abdalla, secretary of the Coast Community Anti-Drugs Coalition. "Where do they expect them to inject themselves? Their bodies are ruptured and rotten as a result of constant use of the needles. Besides, drug peddlers and barons will have a field day, for they'll know their products will be on demand, and that's not acceptable."
Coast religious leaders also objected, saying the government should instead spend its resources on drug treatment.
But Dr. Omar said that needle sharing significantly reduced the risk of coming down with HIV and hepatitis, and that justified the program.
"The program, which will see every addict given three needles and syringes per day, will be supplied to specified private rehabilitation centers and hospitals by NGOs and qualified medical practitioners, in collaboration with anti-drug campaigners, whom we soon plan to train on how they'll best handle the addicts."