Govt urged to permit needle exchanges

Needle exchange kits are common in countries around the world as part of the anti-Aids fight, but still are banned in Thailand. (Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

The Aids Access Foundation has urged public health authorities to stand firm on a plan to curb spiralling HIV contraction rates by giving out clean needles and syringes to drug addicts despite the Council of State considering it a violation of the law.

Nimit: Common practice overseas

Foundation director Nimit Thien-udom said Monday he was worried after learning the Public Health Ministry's Bureau of Aids, Tuberculosis and Sexual Transmitted Infections had said the programme might encourage drug-taking and therefore violate drugs laws.

"The bureau should not let this view [on law violation] sway it off track," Mr Nimit said, insisting that making sure intravenous drug users receive sterile needles has long been regarded as sensible public policy in many countries.

"It is a necessary measure to curb new HIV cases because many addicts tend to share needles. If the Public Health Ministry is worried about those laws, it should ask the government to amend them," Mr Nimit said.

Central to the debate are sections 57 and 58 of the 1979 Narcotics Act. Apart from prohibiting drug taking, the law also criminalises those who supply needles or syringes to drug addicts. Under the Criminal Code, they are subject to one third of the penalty imposed on the users.

Section 93/14 of the same act also prohibits any action deemed as encouraging people to take drugs.

Mr Nimit said the bureau must not be constrained by legal rigidity and must remain steadfast in its duty to prevent the contraction of diseases through needle sharing, which can also include hepatitis C.

Bureau chief Saman Futrakun insisted he supports making hygienic syringes available as a harm reduction measure, but when the Council of State raises doubts, officials must offer clarifications.

"It is clear that the motives behind the measure has nothing to do with encouraging people to take drugs," he said.

"However, a problem is that distribution [of clean needles] is easily interpreted as an act to facilitate the wrongdoing. We need to amend laws," Dr Saman added.

The Public Health Ministry is preparing to send a letter to the permanent secretary for justice in order to find a joint solution.

Dr Saman stressed that having drug addicts use clean syringes is not encouraging them to take drugs, but it is needed because they cannot immediately stop taking drugs and are at risk from contracting HIV.

The distribution should be carried out along with attempts to have them quit drug taking, he said.

Mr Nimit earlier suggested the new needles and syringes could be given out at drug rehabilitation centres.

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