More injecting drug users should undergo tests for HIV, viral hepatitis and other infections such as tuberculosis, says the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA). In new guidelines published today on the eve of World AIDS Day, the agency describes how, in this group, the uptake of testing is still low in many European countries (1).
Infectious diseases are among the most serious health consequences of injecting drug use and can lead to significant healthcare costs. The new guidelines recommend a strategy to increase testing uptake, both in Europe and beyond, that would ensure earlier treatment for injecting drug users (IDUs) and would lower the risk of infection spreading to the wider population.
IDUs are vulnerable to a range of infectious diseases due to a variety of risk behaviours and underlying conditions, such as poor hygiene, homelessness and poverty. The EMCDDA estimates that 30–50% of HIV positive IDUs in Europe are unaware of being infected. It also estimates that around 50% of IDUs (varying between countries from 10% to 90%) are infected with viral hepatitis (notably hepatitis C), which can lead to severe liver disease and premature death.
Commenting today, EMCDDA Director Wolfgang Götz said: ‘It is crucial that those infected are aware of their condition so that they can protect their partners and access the appropriate care and treatment. We encourage service providers and healthcare professionals to take a more proactive approach and ensure that clients at the highest risk of contracting drug-related infections are offered testing on a regular basis. Until now, timely diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases has often been too low a priority among professionals in contact with drug users’.
Today’s manual provides guidance at a practical level, proposing a series of standard tests to be undertaken regularly on a voluntary and informed basis. Among these are serology tests for HIV, hepatitis (A, B, C, D) and other sexually transmitted infections; general blood tests; and tests for tuberculosis. For high-risk IDUs, these tests should be considered annually, or even bi-annually. The guidelines also offer a package of prevention, primary care and referral routines in relation to IDUs and infections.
The guidelines recommend that health providers initiate examination, testing and counselling in IDUs in a variety of healthcare settings (e.g. primary healthcare; special health services for IDUs; low-threshold service centres visited by IDUs; rehabilitation centres; dedicated sexually transmitted infections clinics and prison healthcare facilities). Developed in collaboration with European experts on drug-related infectious diseases, the guidelines are now being distributed across the European Union and globally. They are intended to be of use to thousands of service providers, and may potentially benefit hundreds of thousands of IDUs.