Reflections on the IHRA 2011 conference

April 13, 2011

Posted by Kate Iorpenda

Senior Adviser on Children and Impact Mitigation, International HIV/AIDS Alliance

As I return from the  International Harm Reduction Conference  in Beirut (  I am reflecting on two things. The first on what an impressive change from the conference in Liverpool last year in terms of representation  from around the world and in particular the Middle East and North Africa region.

Having the conference  in Lebanon seems to have offered a platform to the  developing and exciting response in the MENA region with presentations from Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt and the strong local organisation and hosting done by the MENAHRA and SIDC.

The final day concluded with the establishment of a regional network of people who use drugs who will join the growing  International Network of People who use Drugs (INPUD).

The focus throughout the week on women and drug use was welcomed and contained the voices of sex workers, pregnant women and mothers from all over the world. The numbers of youth participants at the conference  had more than doubled since last year and their calls for removal of age restrictions on harm reduction services and  that services are specialised and youth friendly, where young people can access them without the fear of being criminalised, were louder than ever.

There were many more delegates from the African continent who debated the progress of their regional network and presented emerging responses in Tanzania, Nigeria, the Seychelles, and Kenya. I hope Adelaide 2012 can achieve the same  diversity.

Which leads to my second reflection. Both last year and this year I was impressed by the body of knowledge, research, practice and activism around harm reduction, an area fairly new to me but throughout I felt that this group of people within the harm reduction movement still seem to be closed off from the outside world. In my presentation on the last day I offered some suggestions on how the organisations working on children affected by HIV could learn from the harm reduction movement about the families that are missing from the HIV response – drug users do have children and can be good parents! But the wider world’s access to the information is still limited.

Irina Teplinskya a Russian drug user activist  spoke with raw emotion in the closing plenary about the diverse needs of drug users and the continuing denial of rights to health, social welfare, family , employment and treatment within Russia. She began using heroin at 14, legally a child with no access to harm reduction, she has spent 16 years in prison, with no access to harm reduction, she is HIV positive, has TB and Hepatitis C. Her words confirmed how the needs and rights of drug user extend far beyond needles and substitution therapy and that there is still a long way to go to effect the drug policy changes in countries like Russia.

But to me a key part of changing laws and policies that deny people their rights and reaching many more people in our programmes is opening up this event, this movement and all its evidence and practice. We need to see and convert the politicians, doctors, child protection specialists, HIV activists, and TB organisations that stand in the way of an expanded response.

The future of harm reduction is beyond these 1000 experts and advocates and certainly what I will take away from the conference is the need in my work to think about how I contribute to this!

Alliance Good Practice Guides

The Alliance produces a series of Good Practice Guides, bringing together expertise from our global community-level HIV programming.

Find out more and download the Alliance guides on HIV and drug use.

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