June 11, 2013

Global Commission on Drug Policy: Hepatitis C an epidemic


Hepatitis C kills about 350,000 people worldwide every year and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 150 million people are chronically infected. In the Americas, between seven million and nine million are infected with the disease, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). (Francois Nascimbeni/AFP)

Between seven million and nine million people in the Americas are infected with the disease.

By Ezra Fieser for Infosurhoy.com – 11/06/2013

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – The counter-narcotics fight is fueling an international hepatitis C epidemic, according to a new report, leading prominent world and Latin American figures to call on countries to decriminalize drug use and focus on treatment.

“The Negative Impact of the War on Drugs on Public Health: the Hidden Hepatitis C Epidemic,” produced by Global Commission on Drug Policy, stated that about five of every eight intravenous drug users are living with the disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 150 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis C, which kills about 350,000 people a year – most of whom develop cirrhosis or cancer.

In the Americas, between seven and nine million are infected with the disease, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The organization doesn’t estimate the number of deaths specifically caused by the disease, but according to PAHO statistics about 16,500 people die of related disease – such as cirrhosis – annually.

About 10 million people living with the disease are intravenous drug users. But the Global Commission on Drug Policy said the disease is needlessly spread due to outdated laws and policies that target drug users.

Hepatitis C, one of the five types of viral hepatitis diseases that affect the liver, is contracted through contact with the blood of infected persons, meaning intravenous drug users run a high risk of contracting the disease. It is a leading cause of liver transplants.

Infection rates are highest in countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, where as many as 90% of intravenous drug users are infected.

The commission carries the weight of several prominent figures. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, seven former presidents and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson are among the commission’s members.

Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the commission’s chairman, said hepatitis C is “both preventable and curable when public health is at the core of drug response.”

With the report, “we are exposing the links between repressive drug policies and the spread of hepatitis C, another massive and deadly global epidemic,” Cardoso said in a video message introducing the study. “This is another concrete example of the failure and negative impacts of repressive drug policies around the world.”

The commission previously had warned of the link between criminalized drug use and the spread of HIV/AIDS. By linking drug use to hepatitis C, the commission hopes to provide another example in the argument that drug use should be decriminalized.

Cardoso also said it’s a human rights issue.

“Though human rights abuses are widespread in most parts of the world, they come about in different ways,” he said. “In Latin America, the main issue is mass incarceration, violence and corruption and the strengthening of organized crime.”

Specifically, the commission is recommending governments:

  • End criminalization and mass incarceration of drug users;
  • Redirect money currently dedicated to the counter-narcotics fight toward public health projects aimed at drug users;
  • Make sterile syringes available and offer treatment programs, such as opioid substitution therapy for heroin users;
  • Better report hepatitis C cases by improving surveillance systems and other measures;
  • Reduce the cost of medicines that can treat hepatitis C by negotiating with pharmaceutical companies and making the drugs more widely available.

The report was released in advance of the International Harm Reduction Conference in Lithuania, which began June 9.

Meantime, last week’s 43rd General Assembly of the OAS ended with foreign ministers’ creating a roadmap they hope leads to long-term renewal of their regional drug policy in 2016.

Officials at the General Assembly, which was held in the Guatemalan city of Antigua, said they will convene a special meeting during the first half of 2014 to outline the counter-narcotics strategy that will be discussed when the OAS holds its 44th General Assembly in June 2014 in Paraguay.

“We have already reached a consensus and agreed that our final declaration will include changes to the current anti-drug model,” Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera told reporters. “We already have some ideas on how to change drug-fighting policies.”


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