By Jaime Pilapil

The January 2010 HIV/AIDS Registry has two striking and alarming facts, the first is that there are 143 new HIV infections, the highest ever recorded in a single month since the Registry started in 1988. Secondly, 50 of these new cases are traceable to syringe multiple-use of drug users.

This high incidence of infections in injecting drug users (IDU) is a new development since there has been no double digit entry of new infections in this group in the country, though this has been identified as a vulnerable group by the Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS.

The government should look into this and other countries’ response to minimize, if not eradicate infections in IDUs. One program that has been successful in some countries is the Needle Syringe Exchange Program where health workers encourage the exchange of used needles for new ones, thus limiting multiple-use. This program works best in conjunction with other programs that tackle the drug use itself.

However, there is a legal barrier that may prevent the immediate use of this program in our country. Republic Act No. 9165, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Dangerous Drug Act of 2002, criminalizes the mere act of possession of paraphernalia that may be considered for drug use, including needles and syringes.

In a recent PNAC (Philippine National AIDS Council) Meeting, this issue of increasing incidence of IDU infection and the criminalization of possession of needles and syringes was discussed. PNAC is the intergovernmental agency that creates policies related to the prevention and control of HIV and AIDS.

At this time, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) is the PNAC Chair. PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency), the agency tasked to implement drug-related laws is also a PNAC member, along with DOH and DSWD and DOJ, among others.

Aside from an actual prosecution of a case involving the possession of needles and syringe, a possible legal remedy is a petition for Declaratory Relief before the court questioning the legality of the provision criminalizing the mere possession of needles and syringes.

As we can see in this scenario, there are many considerations in the creation and implementation of policies and programs aimed to prevent and control HIV infection. In other countries, the incidence of new infections through IDUs is alarming and one of the modes of transmissions that is hard to prevent since IDUs are marginalized and often criminalized.

This marginalization, with stigma and discrimination usually attached to it, can also be found in other groups with high incidence of HIV infection, including men having sex with men (MSM) and sex workers.
People and groups who are marginalized do not often have access to prevention programs, as well as treatment, care and support. Even if they do have some access, this is limited by the fact that the acts of these groups are criminalized. Some who are brave enough to come out and seek these prevention and treatment programs are often victims of stigma and discrimination, which can in turn, drive them to forego accessing these programs.

This is the vicious circle that PNAC has to address in order that it can come up with policies that can only be successfully designed and implemented with the help and support of these groups since they are the ones affected.

I hope these government agencies will put their acts together to address these contradictions/dilemmas or else our HIV problem will worsen. Email your comments to -30-


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