Monday, December 11, 2006

Drugs sold over the counter fuel HIV/AIDS in India


India needs to tighten control on the sale of prescription drugs from chemist shops to stem the spread of HIV, the United Nations anti-AIDS agency said on Monday.

Many painkillers and sedatives are freely available over the counter in India without any prescription from doctors or hospitals, even though the law says they are required.

Some end up injected into drug users' veins, fuelling a drugs and HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"The problem is the implementation of the law," Suresh Kumar, who advises UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation, said at a news conference.

"They are too few drug inspectors, and drug users shift to pharmaceutical preparations that are readily available."

Drug users, who no longer are satisfied by snorting or inhaling illicit substances, buy drugs from chemists without prescriptions, such as painkiller spasmoproxyvon, liquefy the powder and then inject in their veins.

And they often share needles, resulting in the spread of HIV.

Though only 2.6 percent of India's 5.7-million HIV-positive people were infected by the virus through intravenous drug use, officials say that if it is not checked, it could fuel the spread of AIDS in the country with the world's highest caseload.

"Intravenous drug transmission may be small part of overall transmission, but it can be a turbo engine for accelerating the epidemic," UNAIDS Regional Adviser Swaroop Sarkar said at an Asian conference on HIV risk among intravenous drug users.

Many of the roughly 200,000 intravenous drug users visit prostitutes, expanding the circle of infections.

Besides cracking down on illegal sales of drugs, experts said India also needed to prevent oral drug-users from converting to intravenous transmission.

Experts say that for many drug users in South Asia, the gap between inhaling and snorting illegal substances to intravenous drug use is two to three years, and government and international agencies should use this period for stepping up prevention programmes.

"This is a window of opportunity to intervene and prevent people from crossing over into injecting drug use," said Gordon Mortimore, head of the Programme Management Office of Britain's Department for International Development, India, which supports anti-AIDS programmes.

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