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Fighting AIDS and drug use in Bangladesh, one needle at a time

UNICEF Image: Bangladesh fighting AIDS
© UNICEF/2006/Nettleton
Mosammat Sabera Yasmin, an influential peer educator in Bangladesh, shares her own family's problems with drugs to help raise community awareness of HIV and AIDS.

By Steve Nettleton

RAJSHAHI, Bangladesh, 25 August 2006 – Carrying a large umbrella to shield herself from the hot sun, Mosammat Sabera Yasmin walks along a narrow alley in a poor neighbourhood in this western Bangladeshi city. The young woman is visiting the house of a heroin addict who has just returned from rehab.

The recovering man’s wife prepares food as Ms. Yasmin checks on how the family is coping and talks about how to reduce the risk of getting infected with HIV, which has been spreading among injecting drug users in this area.

She knows firsthand what it’s like to live in this kind of family. Her own parents’ involvement with drugs has tainted Ms. Yasmin with a social stigma.

“As my father was a victim of drug addiction, I had some idea of what really happens to such people – what problem the family has to face, how the children suffer, how it affects their social reputation,” she said. “So when I talk to people, I tell them that I also come from an affected family.”

Injecting drug users have few places to turn, and they are one of the groups most at risk of contracting and spreading HIV.

Rebuilding lives

Rickshaw driver Mohammad Dulal has been addicted to heroin for most of the last 13 years. His habit cost him his job and put an enormous strain on his family. Like most addicts, he often uses shared needles. He is trying to quit his habit at a rehab center in Rajshahi but says he cannot shake his cravings for the drug.

“In the past, if we found a drug user in our locality, we used to beat him up,” said Mr. Dulal. “But today I myself am taking drugs. I have to blame myself for this.”

A few blocks away, dozens of former drug users are hoping to see better success at a detox center run by the non-governmental organization PROVA. They will spend three months here, learning to regain their self-esteem and build the confidence to move on in life without drugs.

PROVA is one of about 90 NGOs getting support from the HIV/AIDS Prevention Project, a $12 million programme funded by the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development. UNICEF manages $5 million of this fund, directing NGOs to focus on prevention and awareness in high-risk groups, including injecting drug users, commercial sex workers and migrant workers.

Ignorance and stigma

Estimates of the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh range from 2,500 to 15,000, a wide gulf most likely resulting from the strong sense of shame Bangladeshi society attaches to the disease.

Peer educators like Ms. Yasmin are key to fighting ignorance and the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS here.

“I feel good that I can talk to people about the consequence of taking drugs and lead people towards the right path,” she said. “I asked people whether they wanted the same fate as my father. I told them that they should not suffer like him. Gradually, one after another began to realize the importance of our counselling.”




UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on an AIDS prevention programme in Bangladesh that reaches out to high-risk groups such as injecting drug users.
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