World AIDS Day: Protect the rights of drug users to fight HIV and AIDS

December 1st is World AIDS Day. The new federal Liberal government can take an important step towards ending the HIV and AIDS epidemic in this country by immediately repealing The Respect for Communities Act.

Introduced under the Harper regime as Bill C2, the Act effectively serves as a ban on safe injection facilities, placing incredible burdens on health authorities and community groups seeking to open facilities to protect the lives of drug users in their own communities.

Drug use and the associated health-related harms, including the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and AIDS, remain major challenges throughout the world. Outside sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that 30% of HIV infections are caused by injecting drugs. It is estimated that there are around 12.7 million people who inject drugs worldwide, and around 1.7 million (13%) of this population are thought to be living with HIV. What is heartbreaking about these statistics is that for the most part, these injection-related new infections are entirely preventable. 

There is a large body of science showing that harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and safe injection sites, are effective in reducing drug-related harms and do not enable or increase drug use. Both the World Health Organization and the United Nations have issued guidelines grounded in this evidence and in human rights recommending that countries implement a set of harm reduction programs in response to drug use and HIV and AIDS.

Stopping the spread of HIV makes public health sense by making our communities safer and healthier. It makes good economic sense too. The cost of treating a person with HIV in British Columbia has been estimated at $12, 000 per year. Harm reduction initiatives like needle exchanges and supervised injection cost pennies per user to run, and stop new infections.

And yet, here in Canada, laws exists that effectively ban these harm reduction programs. Over a decade ago, Insite opened its doors to injecting drug users in Vancouver. Over that period, HIV transmission related to injection drug use has plummeted in the neighbourhood.

Insite’s doors have remained open thanks to a successful Supreme Court of Canada challenge. Rather than pave the way for more health facilities modeled after Insite, the last federal government enacting legislation that has ensured the safe injection facility remains the only one in Canada, and its future is uncertain.

If we’re going to end the epidemic of HIV and AIDS, we must prioritize the rights of drug users. We can start by repealing Bill C2, and letting communities rely on evidence and human rights to create health policy that saves lives.