By Patrick Beja and Linah Benyawa
Government will ignore protests by religious leaders and activists and distribute free, clean syringes to about 26,667 intravenous drug users in Coast Province.
A four-day meeting of experts and policymakers on the issue began in Mombasa on Tuesday. It will draw up a plan for distributing syringes and needles in parts of the province most affected by intravenous injection of narcotics, which is linked to spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. The Kenya Aids NGO Consortium has said it will donate the first batch of syringes and
needles. The meeting in Mombasa includes officials from the National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada), ministries of Medical Services and Public Health and World Health Organisation who see this is as the best way to stem new epidemics related to sharing of needles by drug addicts.
On Tuesday the experts said the proposal is based on sound scientific research done in other countries although Coast Provincial Director of Medical Services Maurice Siminyu disclosed the Coast region is a test case because it “has the highest number of heroin users in Kenya” who inject the drug into their veins, while most other drug addicts in other parts of Kenya abuse cannabis sativa, also known as bhang.
The experts maintain that opposition to the proposed programme is spurred by ignorance and misinformation. Religious leaders and anti-drug activists claim it will encourage drug abuse.
On Tuesday, Nacada chairman Frank Njenga said the programme would begin “in the next few months” and opponents do not understand all the facts.
“Those who object don’t seem to understand that it is a comprehensive counseling programme that includes provision of anti-retroviral drugs (to fight Aids), condoms, and medication for tuberculosis.”
Critics of the programme claim free needles and syringes will increase demand for hard drugs and also enrich suppliers. But the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation and some NGOs are already laying the groundwork to distribute the first batch of eight million needles and syringes in Mombasa, according to Coast Director of Public Health and Sanitation, Anisa Omar.
“Distributing free needles and syringes is irrational, it will encourage more people to abuse hard drugs. It is not a solution to the current problem of drugs and substance abuse in the country,” said Mombasa Catholic Archbishop Boniface Lele on Tuesday.
Some critics even argue the proposal is illegal because it encourages commission of acts defined as crimes under the Penal Code, including taking drugs and trading in narcotics.