On World Aids Day, Dec 1st this year, people will gather outside Russian Embassies and consulates around the world to protest against the brutal and inhumane treatment of people who use drugs in Russia today. This blog will provide an opportunity to post a variety of important, shocking and truthful accounts of what is happening inside Russia today, events in a country that expects to be taken seriously on the world stage, while allowing thousands upon thousands of its citizens to die needlessly of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis, drug overdoses, drug poisonings, and hepatitis C.
It is clear that in Russia today, we are bearing witness to one of the biggest avoidable catastrophes in the history of HIV – the lack of response to the epidemic in Russia. In particular, we must point directly to the special responsibility that Russian medical and public health officials bear for creating and sustaining this disastrous situation.
Methadone and Subutex, have been recognised and listed for years by the World Health Organisation as essential medicines for people dependant on opiate type drugs, and country after country has adopted the evidence based science behind such drug treatment strategies. Russia however, still refuses to acknowledge the huge benefit Opiate Substitution Therapy (OST), meanwhile estimates on the numbers of injecting drug users are growing -1.6-3million people are believed to use drugs -with no access whatsoever to OST such as methadone. Overdose rates stand at around 30,000 per year -that is around 80 mothers, brothers, sisters, and children, dying each and every day. No other country in the world has as many overdoses per head of population, than Russia does today. Why? Because of it’s insistence on using outdated methods to ‘treat’ or simply ignore drug dependence; because it continues to treat people who use drugs as criminals that must be locked away in prison, chained to beds in rehab centres, and stripped of their rights within Russian society. Due to this insistence to ignore the obvious evidence base for harm reduction, an HIV pandemic has exploded across the EEC region, as hundreds and thousands of people become infected with HIV. With extremely limited numbers of needle exchanges available offering sterile syringes to injectors, (all of them funded by NGO’s and not the Russian government), the rate of new infections is set only to grow as rapidly in the future as it has over the last decade.. Currently, eighty per cent of all new HIV infections are in the injecting drug using population, most of which are under 30 years of age and, following the UN office of Drugs and Crime, 40% of Russia’s 1.6million injecting drug users (1) are estimated to be women. Yet the local groups who do manage to provide harm reduction services report as few as one in six of their clients as female. Where are they going for help or support? Answer – They remain off the radar. As NGO’s struggle to fill the huge gaps in services for people who use drugs, poverty, stigma, domestic violence, police harassment, and fear of losing custody of their children are only some of the barriers preventing women who use drugs from seeking medical and counseling services. And, research has shown that if they do come for medical care, they are likely to be denied access or receive substandard services from doctors and nurses who are not trained and not prepared to deal with their issues. Overwhelmingly, women who use drugs do not have access to basic medical care on a regular basis, although they are at a high risk of HIV and other life-threatening illnesses. Drug treatment options are also extremely limited, since drug treatment programs inRussia rarely— if ever— accommodate women with children or pregnant women. Another frequent barrier to care is the requirement that patients present a full set of legal documents— their passport, residence registration, and proof of medical insurance— to receive treatment at AIDS centers. Women and men who use drugs often lack some or all of these papers and thus are denied care. Again, much needed harm reduction programs offer help with residency registration and other documents through legal advocacy. This is the first post in a series that will lead up to World Aids day, and will follow in the footsteps of Russian drug users who took up a protest in Russia on International Drug User Day November 1st 2009, where they attempted to lay flowers and white slippers (a symbol that is put of the coffins of the dead in Russia) on the steps of their embassy. Immediately police rushed out of the building and chased the peaceful demonstrators arresting 5 of them. See link here On 21st July 2011, on International Remembrance Day for people who have died from drugs, the protest expanded again, this time with demonstrators in countries including Spain, Hungary and Germany who also appeared out front of their Russian embassies. All calling for Russia to adopt evidenced based, scientifically sound, cost effective harm reduction and hiv prevention programmes and to stop the human rights abuses of people who use drugs -each and every one who deserves a chance to live a healthy life, free from prison, disease and discrimination. This year on World Aids day, protests will continue again, expanding further, being held in the UK (London), USA (New York), Australia (Sydney, Canberra), France (Marseilles) Romania (Bucharest), Spain (TBC) Canada (Toronto), Sweden (Stockholm) Germany (Berlin). Follow us on FaceBook to find out times and places or stay tuned to this blog (you can subscribe to updates here). (1) UNAIDS, Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, 2010p.38