FREE syringes are being distributed to those who inject drugs in one Cebu City barangay, as part of a program to keep more people from getting the virus that causes Aids.

But the Cebu City Anti-Drug Abuse Council (CADAC) is opposing the “harm reduction program” of the City Health Department (CHD).

In an executive session last week, lawyer Paul Oaminal said that although the program has a noble purpose, it should still be not allowed because it seems to be tolerating the use of illegal drugs. He spoke on CADAC’s behalf.

“Instead of preventing and campaigning for people not to use illegal drugs, the program seems to be inviting people to use illegal drugs,” he said.

Dr. Ilya Tac-an of the CHD clarified that the program does not encourage the use of injectible drugs at all.

“We are one with the drug abuse council in the fight against illegal drugs. In fact, in our advocacy, we always include its ill effects,” she said.

Dr. Tac-an explained that under the program, drug users, particularly those who inject substances, are given a free supply of sterile syringes.

This, she said, could help prevent the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which leads to the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids).

The Department of Health (DOH) has reported that in October 2014, there were 537 more persons with HIV nationwide. Ten percent or 53 individuals are in Central Visayas.

Cebu City, Dr. Tac-an said, is among the top 10 places with a high number of persons with HIV.

In Kamagayan

“HIV spreads rapidly if we do not do something. That is why we need this program,” Dr. Tac-an said.

Giving away sterile syringes, Tac-an said, helps those who inject drugs to avoid sharing syringes, which is one way by which HIV spreads. The program is being implemented in Barangay Kamagayan.

In the United States, syringe exchange programs were found to “substantially reduce the risks of acquiring and transmitting blood-borne viral infections” like HIV. A December 2005 paper by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that one in every five of all persons with HIV got infected because they injected drugs and shared contaminated syringes.

“For injection drug users who cannot or will not stop injecting drugs, the once-only use of sterile needles and syringes remains the safest, most effective approach for limiting HIV transmissions,” the CDC paper said.

The CADAC, however, has passed a resolution expressing “vehement opposition” to the health department’s approach.

During the executive session, a recovering drug user also expressed his opposition to the program.

“It’s like tolerating drug addicts and I was shocked when I knew that the government is giving free syringes,” the individual, who requested that his name be withheld, told the council.

What next?

Because of the objections, the City Council requested City Health to provide the councilors, particularly those in the committee on health, a copy of the memorandum of agreement among parties implementing the free-syringes program.

The Council also requested CADAC, in coordination with the harm reduction program team, to come with recommendations regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the program.

Dr. Tac-an said that of the current population of persons with HIV, 74 percent inject drugs, including freelance sex workers.

She said that some pregnant women who have HIV turned out to have husbands who injected drugs.

From 2010 to 2014, 33 pregnant women were found to be persons with HIV, CHD records showed.

HIV is spread through unprotected sex, the sharing of contaminated needles and syringes by persons with HIV and from a mother with HIV to her infant.