Drug Policies Fuel Deadly Hepatitis C Epidemic
Based on a Global Commission on Drug Policy report, the global advocacy organization Human Rights Watch urged governments around the world to reform drug control policies that resulted in increased risk of hepatitis C for injecting drug users. The commission released the report prior to the 23rd International Harm Reduction Conference held June 9–12 in Vilnius, Lithuania, which borders Eastern European and Central Asian regions that are home to the "world's fastest growing hepatitis C and HIV epidemics."
The report stated that instead of reducing the supply of illegal drugs, "repressive drug policies" encouraged organized crime, violence, and jailing of drug users, and created the potential for a worldwide hepatitis C epidemic. The report noted that punitive laws deterred drug users from obtaining sterile syringes and from seeking drug treatment and health services. Incarcerated drug users often continued using drugs and spreading HIV and hepatitis C since prisons seldom offered prevention and treatment.
Instead of the current law enforcement policies, the report recommended that nations redirect funding toward public health approaches that "maximize" hepatitis C prevention and treatment. Drug users rarely had access to comprehensive, integrated harm reduction services that could lower hepatitis C and HIV rates and prevent coinfection. Elements of harm reduction included patient education, opioid substitution therapy, sterile syringes, testing, and treatment. Human Rights Watch reported that more than 60 percent of injection drug users (10 million) had hepatitis C, and most of the 3 million HIV-infected drug users -- more than 90 percent in some countries -- also had hepatitis C. Coinfection with hepatitis C complicates HIV treatment, but studies have shown that hepatitis C treatment increased adherence to HIV treatment among drug users.
The full report, "The Negative Impact of the War on Drugs on Public Health: The Hidden Hepatitis C Epidemic," was published online at www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/hepatitis/.