Police hamper HIV prevention efforts with drug users

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Written by Kerry Cullinan

Daily police harassment is undermining HIV prevention efforts among people who inject drugs, according to the TB/HIV Care Association (THCA). The association has recorded almost 250 “abuse” cases among this group in just three months, according to a report released today.

The Step Up Project runs one of South Africa's few needle exchange programmes. HIV/TB organisation Right to Care estimates that thre are more than 60,000 injecting drug users in South Africa

The Step Up Project runs one of South Africa’s few needle exchange programmes. HIV/TB organisation Right to Care estimates that thre are more than 60,000 injecting drug users in South Africa

Some local councillors, community policing forums and gangsters were also implicated in the alleged abuses.

The THCA’s mobile clinics exchange the drug-users’ dirty needles and syringes with clean ones. This reduces the likelihood of drug-users infecting each other with HIV when sharing needles, and ensures that discarded needles and syringes are removed from communities where they can be picked up by children.

Most of the “abuses” recorded by the THCA involved police confiscating or destroying the clean needles and syringes they had just been given, according to a report being released today.

“It has become clear that there is a need to record and minimise the human rights abuses suffered by people who inject drugs, and that the current human rights abuses contribute to HIV risk and present a significant barrier to accessing health and HIV related services,” according to the report.

Most incidents took place in the Moot area of Tshwane and in Bellville in Cape Town.

[quote float= right]“People who use drugs are human and we deserve to be treated as humans, not waste or shoved somewhere… denied services at every bend…”

Speaking after one particularly violent raid in Pretoria, an unnamed THCA staff member said that seeing “the police and community policing forum’s reaction today and hearing their hatred has really reminded me on how difficult using drugs is, when everyone is against you, no one wants to know who or what happened to you, they just hate you because they don’t understand you”.

One of the drug users caught up in the raid expressed his own anger: “People who use drugs are human and we deserve to be treated as humans, not waste or shoved somewhere, moved and chased away from area to area, being denied services at every bend, constantly being harassed and arrested or some statistic in a database somewhere.”

The THCA’s StepUp project has reached 1000 people injecting drugs in six months, but research indicates that there may be approximately 75 000 injecting drug users in South Africa.

The extent of HIV infection in this group in South Africa is unknown, but research in Mozambique found 50 percent of injecting drug users were HIV positive and half reused their needles, according to Dr Andrew Scheibe from the Institute of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cape Town.

StepUp is the first needle exchange programme in South Africa, and it aims to show that it is feasible to provide this and other HIV services such as counselling to people who inject drugs.

Needle exchange is internationally recognised as an effective way to reduce the spread of HIV. In 2001, the “Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS” recognised drug-users’ access to sterile needles as an important preventative measure. The declaration was unanimously adopted by all UN member states including South Africa.

South Africa’s National Drug Master Plan 2013-2017 also encourages “harm reduction” as an important strategy to reduce the harm caused by drugs.

The SAPS national, Gauteng and Western Cape spokespersons failed to respond to queries by the time of going to press. – Health-e News.

An edited version of this story was also published on and The Times 

About the author

Kerry Cullinan

Kerry Cullinan is the Managing Editor at Health-e News Service. Follow her on Twitter @kerrycullinan11


  • Hi, very good and important story. First time I hear of this needle exchange programme, and also importantly in your story, putting a human face to drug users. However, instead of just lambasting the police and Community Police Forums, is there any indication on how THCA has actually concretely engaged with the police and CPF’s on this initiative, educating them on the importance of the initiative and co-operation in the sense that it neither wants to undermine efforts to legally combat and crack-down on drug abuse, but merely to advance overall efforts to address the HIV pandemic in the country and reduce incidence in vulnerable groups. Without such efforts on the part of THCA or anyone, it’s just not fair to criticise the police and CPF is this way.

    • Dear Rashied

      Yes, we have. We engaged on an 18 month consultative and education process prior to starting service delivery. We consulted with both drug users and various government infrastructures at local, provincial and national level.There were gaps in this process, and sometimes it was very difficult to get people to partake in these discussions. Some of these gaps were highlighted as service delivery began, but we have always engaged with people and organisations, presenting training, encouraging dialogue, providing data through written documentation and the like. As the project becomes more visible, we are receiving more “complaints” about the service, and we always try to engage in meaningful dialogue, although this takes a lot of time and energy!

      It is interesting that the Councillor who headed up the ward where we experienced the most violations stated in a meeting “I understand the need for this, but I would sooner retire than have this happen in my community”. He is no longer a Councillor and our services continue, in spite of increased action from the CPA and improvement district. We are hoping this will decrease through the release of these reports and through discussions with the new Councillor. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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