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Kenya: Needle Exchange Programs Could Save Lives


Despite the success of needle exchange and other harm reduction programs around the world, there people and institutions who still reject them. Even though injection drug use is said to contribute a relatively small proportion of HIV infections in Kenya, apparently some community and religious groups don’t always wish to support them. Perhaps they do not understand harm reduction?

Canada has been particularly open to needle exchange and other programs, and the view that “Drug users shouldn’t be given clean needles…it only encourages them” is a minority view now, thankfully. If needle exchange reduces transmission of HIV and hepatitis, it must be encouraged. While it may not cut injection drug use directly, it provides a means of reaching out to users in a meaningful way.

Persecuting durg users and suspected drug users, searching and questioning them, using possession of syringes as a reason for arresting them and confiscating their injecting equipment, do not ultimately result in a reduction in injecting drug use. Worse still, these actions result in users facing potentially more dangerous conditions, as well as increasing syringes and needle reuse.

Community and religious groups may be influenced by a hangover from the Bush era. Bush had a sort of ‘victorian’ influence; if he believed something, no matter how stupid, his supporters (sort of hard to believe he had them, but he must have) would believe the same thing. This is especially true of his supporters who were in receipt of US funding for their activities.

The contribution of prison populations to the HIV epidemic in Kenya is also said to be high. Even Canada, the US and Australia don’t have a needle exchange program in prisons, but it would be wise for Kenya to establish where infections are coming from among prisoners.

Aside from the copious innuendo about what men do in prisons, male to male sex is likely to be an issue in a country where it can land you in prison. Prisoners must face other risks, too. Injection drug use is one possibility, but also perhaps tattoos, body percing, blood oaths, traditional practices occur in prisons? Even sharing razors and other sharp objects carries some risk.

Kenya’s Modes of Transmission Survey is not a reliable means of estimating the combined contribution of several groups, such as injection drug users and prison populations. People who fall into these groups may face a high risk of being infected, yet few intervention programs are currently aimed at them.

Needle exchange programs would be a good start and may help to launch other programs, such as opioid replacement therapy, in the long run. But other programs addressing prisoners, men who have sex with men, sex workers and others could address between 20 and 30% of HIV transmission, which is a very substantial figure.

Too many African countries have been swayed by Western prudishness about sexual behavior in their approach to HIV. They have adopted some of the homophobia, xenophobia and other prejudices on which various wars on ‘terror’, ‘drugs’ and the like have been based. This has not led to rapid reductions in HIV transmission; so it’s time for a change.

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