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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 December, 2003, 11:09 GMT
Iran's drug users face Aids risk
By Miranda Eeles
BBC, Tehran

Lavisan detox camp on the western outskirts of Tehran is an unusual place.

Mohammad, with his girlfriend Fereshteh (BBC Persian service, if used by broadcasters outside the BBC this is without BBC consent)
Mohammed believes he contracted HIV by sharing needles in prison
From the road, it is hard to distinguish the huge military-style tents that are scattered amongst the trees.

Once inside the cordoned off area you can see seated areas with sofas and rugs, in this temporary home for men desperate to come off drugs.

In Iran, drug use and Aids are closely intertwined, as the majority of Aids patients have contracted the disease by sharing needles.

The country has 2 million drug users, with around 200,000 injecting themselves intravenously.

Prisons are thought to be one of the main places where the HIV virus is transmitted.

Needle sharing

Mohammad, a 45 year old former addict, is HIV-positive and believes he caught the virus in prison.

"Sometimes as many as 500 people use the same syringe - no-one knows or cares about the consequences
Mohammad, former drug addict
Described as a peer educator, he comes to the camp twice a week as a volunteer to talk about living with HIV.

Lavisan was set up just over a year ago by the local community.

The addicts it serves range from 18 to 60 years old. All have paid around $30 for food, lodging and an intense month-long detoxification programme.

There are clearings where some of the open sessions take place and a large kitchen area where the men can relax, drinking tea and chatting around an open fire.

"In prison the sharing of needles is very common," said Mohammad, sitting in one of the tents.

HIV IN THE MIDDLE EAST

"Sometimes as many as 500 people use the same syringe. No-one knows or cares about the consequences.

"Now I try to I pass on to members of the camp everything I know.

"I ask them to go to a clinic to take tests but only if they want to. I never force them.

"I tell them I am HIV-positive so they realise there is no stigma.

"I am alive now, I enjoy my life the best way I can," he says.

Expanding network

Peer educators are crucial in a country where many of those vulnerable to HIV have little exposure to the media.

Drug addicts, especially those in prison, do not have access to newspapers, television or radio, so their level of awareness is minimal.

They view a drug addict as an offender and not a patient
Dr Arash Alaie, drug use and Aids specialist

Lavisan camp is part of an expanding network of centres across Iran.

There are also clinics both inside and outside prison with the triple focus of drugs, Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases.

These clinics offer primary health care and services such as counselling, free condoms and syringe exchange programme facilities.

Changes needed

Aids experts are hoping a pilot project currently taking place in one of the prisons will soon convince the authorities to offer the same services behind bars.

Dr Arash Alaie helped set up the first of these clinics in Kermanshah, a city in western Iran.

Now he helps run a clinic in north Tehran.

"One of the problems is that they don't have the right approach," Dr Alaie says.

"For example they view a drug addict as an offender and not a patient, so they end up in prison.

"It's important they change their attitude to understand this is an illness and not a crime."

As in other countries around the world, experts believe official statistics belie the reality.

Iran has so far identified around 5,700 HIV patients, but health officials say the figure is probably five times higher.


The following comments reflect the balance of views we received:

Isn't it ironic that in this supposedly backward Islamic country they realise that it is treatment, not retribution, that will ultimately save their society from the scourge of hard drugs like heroin and the epidemic spread of HIV that goes along with it? Here in the United States, the war on drugs has been a failure to say the least simply because we stress draconian penalties that overcrowd our prisons, and interfering in Central and South American countries to solve our drug problem. Say what you will about their human rights record, but it appears the Iranians are a step ahead of us when it comes to their approach to the drug problem.
Amgad Fawzy, New York, USA

Hi Mohammad, having read your story, I admire your work towards educating people about HIV. Unfortunately, people's and doctors' ignorance in Iran costs lives. Communication is the key to this problem. Mohammad keep up your good work.
Javaneh, Maryland, USA




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