3 March 2016

Kenya: Fresh Ways Needed to Fight HIV in Drug Users


It is estimated that 13 million people across the globe inject themselves with drugs.

The first known cases of HIV infection related to injecting drug use were reported in the United States in 1982.

At the time, 13 per cent of Aids cases in the US were people who inject themselves with drugs.

In Kenya, there is evidence that an increasing number of young people are getting addicted to drugs.

The problem is too serious to be left to politicians to use for their own gains.


The Kenyan drug policy is stringent and punitive and has the objective of minimising the possession, sale, and use of drugs.

People often think that drugs users are criminals who should be locked up.

Few consider the health implications of addiction and that even drug users have rights.

So, should drug users be locked up or treated? Will prison improve their health outcomes?

Kenyan policy makers have not taken into consideration the now widely accepted notion of harm reduction, which consists of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use.

This has helped to reduce HIV prevalence in other nations.

This approach attempts to identify, measure, and minimise the consequences of drug use at the individual, community, and society level.

Its main aim is to reduce the spread of HIV and other infections such as hepatitis.

This approach has succeeded in many regions where policies have been formulated to address syringe exchange and distribution, prescription of drugs, safe-injection sites, and peer outreach to users.


Harm reduction is just a new name for an old concept.

For example, morphine or heroin was in the early 20th century proposed for use in the treatment of opium addiction.

This was the beginning of a pragmatic and humanitarian approach to the treatment of drug addiction.

In the United Kingdom, thanks to the adoption of a comprehensive harm reduction approach, the rate of HIV infection among injection drug users is comparatively low, with a national average of 1 per cent.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that syringe access programmes lower HIV incidence among people who inject drugs by 80 per cent.

Kenya needs to learn from the examples of success in other regions and change its policy to recognise the health risks for drug users in relation to HIV prevalence.

Harm reduction and legalisation are not synonymous.

Harm reduction is meant to reduce the risks for not only the drug user but also his immediate environment.

This implies that there should be cooperation between those providing care for addicts, the criminal justice system, and the government.


For 22 years, the Kenyan Government has fought the drug war using the 1994 Narcotics Act.

During that time, the number of people using drugs, drug peddlers, and those hauled to jail for offences related to drug use has increased, compounding the problem of broken families, reduced income, and increased poverty.

Harm reduction is, therefore, not a disastrous experiment but a serious effort to tackle a serious issue.

Our policies have clearly not worked as they have not produced demonstrably better results.

The UN General Assembly Special Session, to be held in New York in April, is expected to discuss drug laws and will be instrumental in shaping policies on the problem of drug use and HIV infection.

Kenya should consider reforming its drug policy to take care of other considerations apart from security.

The author is policy and advocacy officer at the Kenya Aids NGOs Consortium.


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