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Fighting drugs, across Asia

By Ramya Kannan

CHENNAI, SEPT. 14. From five countries they came, with the determination to take forward their war against drug abuse. A group of social workers from Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, Malaysia and India met here to share notes, learn from one another's experiences, draw emotional support and strategise to strengthen their respective drug addiction programmes.

From their accounts, it is clear that such abuse is no longer an isolated occurrence. With injecting drug-users, especially, the prospect of contracting HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), sexually transmitted diseases and strains of hepatitis is especially alarming. "Drug addiction is no longer an individual issue. It has to be handled along with other problems. Timely treatment for opportunistic infections is important, as is giving addicts a place to turn to when all else fails," says Eldred Tellis, regional programme manager (Asia) of DOH International, a global non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved in drug rehabilitation.

The training programme was organised here by the TT. Ranganathan Clinical Research Foundation, which has had a long and distinguished record in the field. The event was sponsored by DOH International and the European Commission, Shanthi Ranganathan, honorary secretary of the Foundation, said.

Mr. Tellis said: "In all these countries, the problem of addiction is huge and the intervention is not up to scale. There is need for much more work to be done in all the nations."

Common features

In a way, though their problems are different, there is a common thread running through them. While Nepal, with a high level of injecting drug-users and little or no intervention from the state, has the most complex problem, Cambodia's vast population of street children is a cause for concern.

Ouch Pathakmathak from Cambodia explains how difficult it is to rehabilitate street children who are injecting drug-users and are involved in commercial sexual activity. "We have drop in centres and our outreach programme connects with them on the streets and tries to woo them into the centres," Mr. Pathakmathak says. "But do the children manage to come out of addiction? It depends. Some go back to their families, and then it depends on how they follow up," his colleague, Unsa Voeuon, says.

Malaysian de-addiction counsellors are worried about the HIV numbers, especially among injecting drug-users. Kew Boon, a social worker, says the state's contribution is indirect. It funds NGOs that take care of rehabilitation programmes.

However, this is just the issue that worries Kapil Thappa and his colleagues from Nepal. "There are at least 60,000 drug users in Nepal, of whom 40 per cent inject drugs. About 70 per cent of this group are HIV positive. With these numbers, it would be better if the state involves itself in rehab[ilitation] work," he says. There are several rehabilitation and support centres that are being run by NGOs, but Mr. Thappa feels these are insufficient to handle the problem in Nepal. "They do not hinder us, but they don't help us either. At the moment, we are trying to build an advocacy group of recovering drug users. `Recovering Nepal' is trying hard to convince the rulers of the urgency of the situation, but I must admit, we have not had much success," he adds.

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