Increased drug use spreads HIV in Latvia

  • 2000-04-27
  • By Anna Pridanova
RIGA - Increasing drug use is a cause for the rising number of those HIV/AIDS infected in Latvia, say criminologists and medical experts. The figures are dramatic.

In the current situation everyone is under threat, medical experts told the press April 11 in the state police headquarters.

The most moving argument supporting this serious advisory is the first Latvia-born child with HIV who got the virus from his infected mother during her pregnancy.

The statistics show apparent frightening trends in the spread of the infection. If during the early 1990s until 1997 the infection spread primarily among homosexuals, now it spreads among intravenous drug users. The earlier annual increase in the period 1987-1994, was only one to eight persons a year, and in 1995-1997 it rose to 21-25. During the last three years the number of HIV infected rose seven times and now comprises 587 persons.

The reason for the rapid spread of infection among the drug users is that they use drugs collectively. In 85 percent of cases addicts share needles. That in 1999, 72 percent of intravenous drug users were young people explains why the youngest HIV infected needle sharer is only 15 years old.

The director of the AIDS Prevention Center, Andris Ferdats, said one of the ways to combat the spread of HIV is the needle exchanges. Every drug user can use this service for free in two such points in Riga. Ferdats agrees that more centers are needed. The most important outcome of this activity are contacts established by center staff with the drug addicts, for the people working there are usually ex-addicts themselves, enabling them to explain some things in a more comprehensive way.

The problem medical professionals face in prevention of the spread are changes in the virus itself, occurring every 15 years. Another problem is addicts' reluctance to give up drug use.

Vilnis Kipens, the head of the Drug Abatement Bureau, said one of the major causes for the extensive rise of drug use is the lack of information and understanding that society has about this problem. He said journalists have to take part of the responsibility for the situation, resulting from misrepresentation of the police words that "It was never said that the cannabis (grass, pot) is not as dangerous as heroin." Kipens explained that pot is classified as a weaker drug, but it is not less dangerous. The understanding of the drug's danger has to be changed in society, he said, because "people start with the first and then pass to the second."

Aija Pelne, the deputy director of the Drug Center at Riga, said Latvian statistics show that 25 percent of drug addicts pass to hard drugs from the weaker. She also stressed that both drug categories are equally dangerous which is why they register both cannabis and intravenous drug users. She said that drug dealers try to accustom users to the harder drugs from the very beginning, selling pot sprinkled with heroin, which makes it more dangerous. Though she admitted that the statistics in this regard cannot be as precise as, say, tuberculosis statistics. In addition, the registered cases may not embrace those pot users who never pass to the harder drugs.

"The situation is bad," said Kipens, "and I see no signs of improvement. And it will worsen in the future." Despite his pessimistic prophecies, Kipens mentions that the Latvian government at least admits rising drug use to be a problem, comparable to the Estonian government's position.

The problem has an apparent social, economic and legal nature that demands a multidimensional approach, said Angelina Kamenska, from the Soros Foundation which supports the imprisonment reform project.

Gita Rutina, the head of the Society Health Department of the Ministry of Welfare, said that in cooperation with other ministries, the Welfare Ministry has designed an HIV/AIDS limitation strategy approved by the minister and to be submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers.

The spread of HIV among drug users presents a social threat, because often drug addiction results in theft, robbery and other crimes for drug money bringing suspects into contact with employees in police, justice and medical systems. These people are not protected against infection in their everyday work.

With the help of the Soros Foundation, a program has trained the police and prisons staff to protect themselves from possible infection if they accidentally contact HIV infected blood. Within the last two years more than 2,400 persons became acquainted with the nature of the viruses and protection equipment - the gloves and the masks used during emergency response which protect both - policemen and the injured.

Patrol units in most Western countries have this equipment, but not in Latvia. Guess the reason: Latvia has neither money to order them abroad, nor companies able to produce them at home at cheaper prices. This leaves the police on their own and responsible for their own protection.