'Harm reduction' to fight HIV/AIDS: Does it work in Philippines?

By Ryan Chua, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 27 2015 09:13 PM | Updated as of May 28 2015 05:34 AM

Senate panel asks for suspension of ‘harm reduction’ program for drug users

MANILA - The Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs has told the Department of Health (DOH) to suspend the distribution of syringes to drug users.

The mechanism is part of the so-called harm reduction program implemented at a barangay in Cebu City, in an effort to help stop the spread of diseases passed on through sharing needles, such as HIV/AIDS.

“Perhaps you should study it first. It really has to have parameters,” committee chair Senator Grace Poe said to health officials at a hearing on Wednesday. “So that there’s accountability and we wouldn’t violate the law, the ones who get it should be monitored and should have their names listed.”

Undersecretary Edgar Galvante of the Dangerous Drugs Board said the harm reduction program was not authorized.

“While they are implementing the harm reduction without any authority at all, regardless of whether it is noble or not, it’s still against the law. Unless you get permission, you cannot control it,” he said.

The DOH said the program was implemented in 2014 following studies done since 2011.

Dr. Gerard Belimac, DOH’s HIV program manager, said a non-government organization called Population Services International is actually implementing the program while the Health Department monitors it.

Amid criticisms, Teresita Bagasao, country director of UNAIDS, defended the harm reduction program.

“Harm reduction is one of the proven interventions in terms of addressing HIV and other drug-related issues,” she said.

Bagasao added, however, that the program “cannot be seen as a standalone.”

“Harm reduction needs to be hand in hand with comprehensive drug treatment,” she explained.

Senator Vicente Sotto III called for the hearing in a privilege speech early this month, where he assailed the program for supposedly encouraging drug use.

At Wednesday’s hearing, he reiterated that the practice is illegal. He also said the DOH chief, Secretary Janette Garin, herself is against the program.

“I’m 100 percent to support you for control of HIV/AIDS,” Sotto said. “But ang problema, huwag n’yong gagamiting excuse na mag-distribute ng jeringuilla sa mga adik para makaiwas sila sa AIDS (But don’t use it as an excuse to distribute syringes to addicts just so that can avoid AIDS).”