Thursday, 17 March 2011 15:02James O’Toole and May Titthara
A local NGO says it has lost the right to provide needle exchange services to drug users in Daun Penh district, raising concerns about containment of the HIV rampant among injection drug users.
David Harding, a drug specialist at Friends International, said partner NGO Mith Samlanh had received the directive from Daun Penh authorities in late January.
“It was a bit of a shock to us all, really,” Harding said. “I can understand their concern, but I don’t think they’re really seeing the full picture.”
Daun Penh officials said they did not want drug users congregating in the district to take advantage of Mith Samlanh’s services, Harding said, adding that he had received no word about the policy being formalised or extended to other districts.
Daun Penh deputy governor Sok Penhvuth referred questions to district governor Sok Sambath, who could not be reached for comment.
Neak Yuthea, director of the department of legislation, education and rehabilitation at the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said he believed the issue was still being considered and had not been finalised.
“Regarding the NGO Mith Samlanh’s operations in Daun Penh district, we are under discussion on whether to allow them to operate a needle exchange programme for drug users or not,” he said.
“We allow them to operate needle exchange programmes in areas where they cannot control all of the drug users, but in Daun Penh, there are not many and they can control them, so we are thinking about that.”
Man Phally, programme manager at Mith Samlanh, said there were “not as many” people who used the needle exchange service in Daun Penh compared with other districts, estimating the recent average at just 10 to 15 per month. He cautioned, however, that drug users are “very mobile” and that such numbers are variable.
UNAIDS country director Tony Lisle said in November that the HIV rate among injection drug users in Cambodia was 24.4 percent, a figure he called “very worrying”. This rate comes despite an HIV prevalence rate among adults in the general population of just 0.5 percent as of 2009.
Man Phally said he believed the Daun Penh directive had come in connection with the government’s Village Commune Safety Policy, a plan approved by Interior Minister Sar Kheng in August last year that calls for local officials to “take action to cut off and eliminate producing, dealing and using illegal drugs”.
“If we do syringe needle exchange, it seems we are going against the policy of no drug use in the area,” Man Phally said, though he raised concern about reduced services for local drug users.
“They’re still using drugs and if they have no syringe and needle exchange, they share and there’s more risk of HIV-AIDS,” he said. “We are not going against the policy of the government, but we would like to work in collaboration with the government.”
Police in the capital have conducted a wave of street sweeps and drug busts in recent weeks, including one last Friday that netted more than 80,000 yama pills and three kilogrammes of methamphetamine.
Harding said, however, that a significant number of drug users had been picked up as well.
“It makes providing essential HIV-prevention services much more difficult to do, because obviously you’re less able to reach people at risk,” he said. “It’s a situation where a lot of people are concerned, inside and outside of government.”