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June 26, 2017

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UN AIDS envoy worried for Crimean drug users

PARIS--The U.N.'s AIDS envoy for Eastern Europe voiced fears Thursday for injecting drug users in Crimea who risk being cut off from a lifeline treatment prohibited in Russia.

Michel Kazatchkine said he was worried that heroin replacement programs called opioid substitution therapy (OST) would end for these individuals, stripping them of a major benefit in the fight against HIV.

"I am obviously concerned for the risk that an abrupt cessation of access to OST would represent for the many people who have benefited from these programs," Kazatchkine, the U.N.'s HIV/AIDS envoy for Eastern Europe and central Asia, told AFP by telephone from Geneva.

"OST is illegal in the Russian Federation. There is no OST whatsoever. With Crimea becoming a part of the Russian Federation, I don't see how OST programs can be continued there."

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, an NGO working to halt HIV spread, said more than 14,000 injecting drug users in Crimea risk being cut off from medicine and other services.

Most immediately at risk are about 800 Crimeans who depend on OST — synthetic drug substitutes that are safer than the heroin they replace and are administered under medical supervision, curbing HIV infection by preventing needle-sharing.

"Current stocks of methadone and buprenorphine on the Crimean peninsula will only last for another few weeks at most," the alliance said.

"With the blocking of highways that connect Crimea to the mainland, getting medical supplies through is challenging and there are concerns that a major public health crisis will arise as a result."

HIV Risk if Therapy Cut

AIDS experts say an oppressive approach to drug users often backfires. If they are stigmatized or jailed, they become more at risk of contracting HIV among themselves and transmitting it to others.

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