By Joyce Lee The Chicago Bureau
WASHINGTON, D.C. — AIDS hardly makes for a celebratory conference. But in the U.S. capital last month, there was much boasting about how far the United States and the world had come in battling the scourge.
With the likes of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and U.S. Senator John Kerry taking turns speaking, attendees of the 2012 World AIDS conference learned about how, among other things, the travel ban for HIV-positive people was lifted under the administration of President Barack Obama and how a cure for HIV appeared within reach.
Perhaps. But weeks later, a smaller group of activists is still trying to draw attention to a worrisome trend in the HIV and AIDS communities in which youth drug addiction has, they say, been all but overlooked in the global movement.
“[We need] a much greater focus on harm reduction,” said Robin Pollard, a member of Youth RISE, who took part in a panel at the conference. There is, she said, “too little harm reduction and there’s very little international focus on young people and drug users.”
Harm reduction policy, which is widely debated on political and health grounds, is the idea of meeting people half way. In the case of drug users, for example, instead of aiming to stop drug use entirely, advocates promote the safe use of drugs through such things as clean syringes.
Youth advocates stress the lack of momentum and missing services surrounding minors addicted to drugs. Often, in fact, age restrictions placed on services stop addicted youth from gaining access to the care they need.
Take the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, where Guffran Rostom, the head of the department of prevention, advocacy, communication and training at Prévention Information Lutte contre le SIDA (PILS), said harm reduction policies had been actively used in some areas since 2004. But Rostom said drug addicts younger than 18 were unable to gain access to methadone substitution therapy because of age and legal barriers.
“The U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights called on Mauritius to ‘remove age barriers to accessing opioid substitution therapy,’ but until now, nothing has been done,” Rostom said, referring to a plea made by the United Nations in March of 2010.
Sariah Daouk, a member of SIBA, a Lebanon-based NGO working to reform drug policy, said there exists no efforts to help ease youth out of drug addictions in Lebanon, except in extreme cases.
“Young individuals are constantly prosecuted, taken to detention centers, taken to prison, and have a black dot on their record,” Daouk said. “There’s no choice, you go to prison or you go to treatment.”
Most commonly, services are simply not “youth friendly,” Daouk said, using a term to point out the stark cultural differences between youths and adults in many countries, and the need for youth-specific treatment. Even in the cases where youth receive treatment, they frequently fall back into use and addiction because the treatment is not youth friendly.
“Young people are not a homogenized group,” according to Pollard of Youth RISE. “[Services need to be] culturally sensitive and always adapted to the group of young people they are serving, as well as to the community.”
In fact, at last month’s conference in Washington, protesters echoed the call to bring young drug users into the discussion. At one news conference, for example, speakers were interrupted as a group of protesters burst out of their seats with bright red umbrellas and marched around the room.
“No sex workers, no drug users, no IAC,” they chanted, protesting the visa ban on sex workers and injecting drug users.
“We can never stop the use of drugs but we can keep people safe,” said Yamina Sara Chekroun, an outreach advocate for TRIP! “Drug use is a health issue, not a legal one.”
Joyce Sohyun Lee: Joyce Lee is a student at the Medill School of Journalism and is a double major in International Studies. While at Northwestern, she reported for the Protest and NUIntel. She is interested in human trafficking and writes for a local online publication in her hometown of Fairfax, Va., USA