HIV infection rate soars among IV drug abusers

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Mon, Nov 22, 2004 - Page 4

The number of intravenous drug users infected with HIV/AIDS has shot up to a record high of 246 cases in the past ten months, according the latest statistics of the Center for Disease Control.

"Apart from unsafe sex, drug abuse has increasingly become the hotbed of AIDS here," the chief of the Center's AIDS section Tsai Shu-feng (蔡淑芬) said yesterday.

This year's number represents a four-fold increase over the 54 people who were infected with the killer disease through dirty needles between January and October last year.

Health officials expected the figure to fly higher in the next few months, since health officials has started to expand the free HIV screening service from clinics to intravenous drug users caught by police.

While the most stigmatized risk group -- homosexual men -- actually saw a slight decline from 257 cases found between January and October last year to 236 over the same period this year, the soaring number of drug addicts with HIV shows a new loophole in the government's anti-AIDS campaign. "Compared to all other high risks groups, we are seeing the cases of drug users soar unchecked," Tsai added.

The difficulty in curbing the infection rate in this group lies in the inaccessibility of drug users, health officials said. Harsh drug policies and police harassment of intravenous drug users have driven them underground. Caught in a police raid during a home party, drug users usually harbor mistrust of any official authority. "Some of them think [health workers] are on the police's side and refuse our help," said Zhuang Ping (莊苹), the chief of nursing section at the Taipei City STD Control Center who counsels arrested drug users infected with HIV.

"You don't meet a drug addict on the street and advise them to use clean needles and wean themselves off heroin," Tsai said. "We need to dig out these invisible individuals, and that's where the police come in."