Needle exchange a must in the fight against HIV/Aids

SEYCHELLES - Needle exchange must be accepted in the fight against HIV/Aids! 
This was one of the main conclusions from a focus group discussion which was held in November at the National Assembly on Ile du Port. 

The discussion was led by Professor Timothy Quinlan, a course director at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Professor Quinlan is also a consultant for the South African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF). He was in Seychelles conducting a HIV/Aids and governance programme baseline study. The aim of his visit was to collect baseline information which will result in a better HIV/Aids advocacy policy for SADC parliamentarians.

Among the audience were the local World Health Organisation (WHO) representative Dr Cornelia Atsyor, the chairperson of the National Aids Council Dr Anne Gedeon, National Assembly staff, journalists and representatives from different work organisations. 

Professor Quinlan concentrated the discussion around the practices and trends which should be monitored in the fight against the HIV/Aids pandemic. 

He emphasised that continuous monitoring is important as even if the figures tend to show that only a small number of people here are infected and affected, the prevalence rate is too high for Seychelles. 

Delegates identified social ills as the main causes to the spread of HIV/Aids and other diseases such as different forms of hepatitis. Those include prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as multiple partnerships. They agreed that the spread of communicable diseases puts pressure on the health system and on the country's economy in general. 

They also raised other concerns linked to HIV/Aids such as school drop-outs, teenage pregnancy, under use of health facilities, a general culture of patients not taking their medicine, non-access to contraceptives for girls under 18 years of age without parental consent and sometimes poor data collection. 

On the last note it was observed that contact tracing is done as a form of monitoring. However, some patients do not or take time to admit their practices like homosexuality and drug addiction. 

The strong point of the meeting was the seemingly unanimous agreement that needle exchange among hard drug users must be accepted as a means of protection against HIV/Aids and hepatitis. Some doctors have expressed discontent over their inability to offer a syringe to a patient, when they know that he or she will go and share one with a potentially infected friend immediately after leaving the clinic. 

They have agreed that Seychelles has very good legislation where HIV/Aids is concerned, but there is a gap to be filled in this area. 

It has been some time now since various HIV/Aids activists and concerned organisations have been calling for the introduction of a needle and syringe programme (NSP) or syringe-exchange programme (SEP). This is a health service that allows injecting drug users (IDUs) to obtain needles at little or no cost. 

It is based on the philosophy of harm reduction that attempts to reduce the risk factors for diseases such as HIV/Aids and hepatitis. While NSPs provide most or all equipment free of charge, exchange programmes require users to return their used syringes to be exchanged for new ones. 
A comprehensive 2004 study by the WHO found a "compelling case that NSPs substantially and cost effectively reduce the spread of HIV among IDUs and do so without evidence of increasing the level of injecting drug use." 

These programmes exist in most European countries and in the United States. Others like Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Iran and neighbouring Mauritius have also adopted them. 

The meeting with professor Quinlan also focused on other solutions to the spread of HIV/Aids. These include systematic use of condoms, prevention campaign among young people who are not yet sexually active and who have not had contact with drugs, more awareness through songs and other forms of art, targeting specific areas such as prisons and putting into place a HIV/Aids workplace policy. 

As Seychelles does not benefit from the Global Fund to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria because of its high GDP, alternative funding must be sought.


*This article, which was slightly edited, was first published on: http://www.nation.sc/article.html?id=243781

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