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Cape Town – Ahead of International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on Sunday, the Voortrekker Corridor Improvement District (VRCID) and partner non-profit organisationTB HIV Care are highlighting the need to work together to destigmatise substance use disorder in the Bellville CBD.
According to data from the International Network on Health and Hepatitis in Substance Users (INHSU) published last year, there are 67 000 to 75 000 people who inject drugs in South Africa.
The number of people who inject drugs in Cape Town is estimated at 1 517 with Bellville CBD recording a high prevalence of drug injectors.
While there is a large number of people who struggle with substance use disorder, sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs puts people at higher risk of another epidemic: HIV.
TB HIV Care and VRCID aim to destigmatise the preconception around drug users, not only to restore their dignity, but also to provide them with a safe space to mitigate the risk of HIV transmission through the Clean Needle Project.
Injecting drug users are some of the most vulnerable population groups when it comes to blood-borne viruses, and often struggle to access HIV prevention services or appropriate treatment, care and support. One of the major challenges is that the drug users sometimes discard used needles in public parks or other areas to avoid getting arrested if the needles are found in their possession. This puts others at risk of infection.
The Clean Needle Project, spearheaded by TB HIV Care, has reached an agreement with local authorities that people with needles on them are not arrested, since criminalisation of a drug user does not stop drug use. Reciprocally, users take responsibility not to discard the needles in public parks.
TB HIV Care only replaces returned needles with new, clean needles and works with cleaning teams – consisting of drug users – on the Clean Needle Project to clean the parks and pick up the needles discarded there. The organisation also provides injecting drug users with containers to properly dispose of their needles.
“We formed the partnership with TB HIV Care eight years ago with the aim to drive harm reduction in the VRCID area. We are trying to create awareness that a substance use disorder is just that – a disorder and an illness, not criminal behaviour,” said Wilma Piek, social development manager at the VRCID.
All of the people who are part of the Clean Needle Project receive weekly Behaviour Change Intervention – a counselling/information session, six weekly TB screenings and STI screenings and an HIV test.
If they test positive on any of these screenings, they are immediately referred to the local clinic for intervention and treatment and the spreading of the disease is prevented.
Recently, the VRCID and TB HIV Care advocated for an OST (opioid substitution therapy) programme. At present, TB HIV Care has the capacity for 20 drug users on this programme which is a huge step in providing an alternative to heroin use.
“There is still a lot of resistance in this regard, but we are currently advocating for a safe injecting site, too, to reduce the harm for the community and businesses in the area who are subjected to drug users injecting in front of their businesses and in front of community members,” Piek said.
When reflecting on his interaction with TB HIV Care, a recovered heroin addict said: “TB HIV Care was there for me when no one else was and I am forever grateful for the second chance at life they afforded me. TB HIV Care saw something in me that I was unable to, and showed me that this life is precious – something that my dad tried to convince me of before he passed, but wasn’t enough to get me to stop using at the time.”