Police Join Forces with HIV Experts to Turn Tide of HIV Among Sex Workers and Drug Users

MELBOURNE—In a growing number of countries—from Kyrgyzstan to Kenya—police are working with sex worker and drug users to reduce HIV infections, said the Open Society Foundations in a new report today.

By working to end harmful law enforcement practices that drive people away from life-saving health services—such as treating condoms or clean needles as evidence of criminality, and harassment or arrest outside of health clinics—HIV experts are training police across the globe to implement harm reduction approaches to HIV prevention with vulnerable populations.

“Harm reduction approaches to HIV prevention among sex workers and drugs users have been scientifically proven by public health experts, but cannot be successful without the active participation of law enforcement,” said Lam Tien Dung; Lieutenant Colonel, People’s Police Academy, Vietnam. “We used to think of these people as our targets, but now we see them as our partners. By working with HIV experts to develop strong police practices grounded in public health and human rights, we can help control the spread of HIV among these groups—and the general population.”

Through detailed case studies from Burma, Ghana, India, Kenya, and Kyrgyzstan, the report shows that public health-centered law enforcement can reduce the risk of HIV infections among sex workers and drug users. The report will be launched today at a press conference at the 20th International AIDS Conference where law enforcement personnel and health experts will share experiences from the frontlines.

This choice of Australia as a venue for the AIDS conference is significant, given the continued growth of the HIV epidemic in Asia and the Pacific. An estimated 4.9 million people now live with the virus in the region, and criminalized groups—including sex workers and people who use drugs—account for the majority of new HIV cases in many countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. Law enforcement policies and practices often undermine the efforts of public health officials.

“With HIV rates across Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa rising among people who use drugs and sell sex, it is imperative that police recognize the critical role they can play in preventing the transmission of HIV among these criminalized groups,” said Michel Kazatchkine, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “HIV treatment and prevention measures that we know work to control the epidemic have failed to reach the world’s most vulnerable people. Criminalization and law enforcement are two of the main reasons why.”

Harm reduction programs that have been proven to reduce HIV include the distribution of condoms, sterile injecting equipment, the prescription of medicines like methadone, or buprenorphine, as well as measures to divert those in need to health and social services. Instead, these programs and the people who use them, frequently face harassment, punishment, and arrest by law enforcement officials.

“While public health officials call sex workers and drug users ‘hard-to-reach populations,’ police have little trouble finding them,” said Daniel Wolfe, Director of the Open Society International Harm Reduction Development Program. “Increasing numbers of law enforcement officials are recognizing that we cannot arrest our way out of the HIV epidemic, and that it is possible to rethink policing in ways that maintain public order without undermining public health.”

The report comes as almost 10,000 current and former law enforcement officials from over 35 countries have signed the Law Enforcement and HIV Network’s statement of support for harm reduction practices to control HIV among these vulnerable populations.