Methadone therapy, needle exchanges leading HIV battle

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China has made progress in curbing the spread of HIV by promoting methadone therapy and providing clean needles for drug addicts, experts said.

By July 1, 2006, 101 methadone clinics had been set up with 204 more due to open by the end of the year, said Wu Zunyou, director of the National Centre for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention.

Wu said a total of 15,678 people have received methadone treatment since 2004 when the first clinic was established in Gejiu, in Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

Currently, 10,754 people are taking methadone, a synthesized narcotic widely used internationally as a drug substitute, helping wean them away from their addiction.

Official statistics show that China has just over 1 million drug addicts. However, experts estimate that the actual number is much bigger, possibly as many as 10 million.

The sharing of infected syringes ranks with unprotected sex as one of the two main causes of the spread of HIV, which 650,000 citizens now suffer from.

Just over 44 per cent of the 70,000 new cases of HIV reported last year are believed to have been infected through sharing needles, while 43.6 per cent contracted the disease through unprotected sex.

Outbreaks of HIV/AIDS caused by drug abuse have been found in many provinces and regions, although Yunnan Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region are the two hardest hit areas.

Wang Longde, vice-minister of the Ministry of Health, warned that the virus is currently spreading from high-risk groups such as drug addicts and prostitutes to the general public.

He added that many prostitutes are also drug users, which raises the chance of them passing the virus on.

Aside from the methadone clinics, 300 new needle exchange centres will open by the end of the year.

By the end of 2005, the country had 91 free needle exchange centres, according to the Ministry of Health.

In a methadone clinic, a cup of methadone drink, which helps addicts slake their thirst for drugs, costs just 10 yuan (US$1.2). Replacing injected drugs with a drink encourages addicts to give up injections, which can spread AIDS.

Those undergoing methadone replacement therapy are required to take regular urine tests, Xinhua News Agency reported.

The results are recorded in a national data base run by police authorities.

The Regulation on AIDS Prevention and Control, which came into effect in March, says that governments at various levels are duty-bound to launch drug replacement therapy programmes to curb drug abuse and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Wu said that, according to a study of the clinics' work, only 8.8 per cent of addicts who received methadone treatment for one year took drugs again.

However, of those who start the treatment nearly 70 per cent will return to using drugs.

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