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Swiss help for Uzbek drug addicts

Attitudes towards drug abuse have changed in Switzerland Keystone

Switzerland is extending a helping hand to drug addicts in Uzbekistan by sponsoring a project aimed at reducing the risk of HIV and other diseases among users.

This content was published on August 10, 2003 - 12:14

At the forefront is the Bern-based organisation, Contact Netz.

Under the leadership of Jakob Huber, Contact Netz has set up two safe houses in Uzbekistan with the help of two local non-governmental organisations.

At the centres in the capital Tashkent and Samarkand drug addicts can pick up clean needles and condoms.

The Bern group has also set up a network of local volunteers who visit their charges.

Heroin addiction

Huber told swissinfo that the work was vital because Uzbek society was suffering from increasing levels of heroin addiction.

Indeed the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that in 2000, 0.7 per cent of all Uzbeks above the age of 15 were addicted to opiates, mostly heroin.

The total population of Uzbekistan is an estimated 24 million.

Huber believes that Switzerland is well placed to respond to a cry for help from Tashkent. He says that, just over two decades ago, Switzerland was in a similar position to Uzbekistan today.

“We had a drug policy based on abstinence, so we reached just ten per cent of drug users. In Uzbekistan, they reach just five to ten per cent of the people with their system and we have the experience that it is possible to reach the other 90 per cent of the people,” Huber explained.

Swiss policy is based on four pillars – prevention, therapy, law enforcement and harm reduction and, according to Huber, the project in Uzbekistan focuses on harm reduction.

“This means protecting people from HIV and other sicknesses and reaching them so they don’t die before getting treatment,” he stressed.

UN criticism

The United Nations in April criticised Switzerland’s drug policy for being too liberal. However, Huber denies that this has undermined the credibility of the Swiss-Uzbek collaboration.

“Two of the main points of criticism are always the injecting rooms – which are seen as being very liberal - and heroin substitution projects. Neither of these is being used in Uzbekistan, where the main tasks are to reach people and to prevent HIV.”

The Harm Reduction Drug Project Uzbekistan may even serve as a blueprint that could be extended to deal with the problems faced by the country’s neighbours.

“Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed an interest but the main problem is finding the money,” Huber said.

The Swiss government is funding the Uzbek project for three years at an annual cost of $125,000 (SFr170,000).

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

drugs summary

Switzerland is sponsoring a project among drug addicts in Uzbekistan to stop the spread of HIV and other diseases.

Bern-based organisation Contact Netz is leading the Swiss effort, which is being funded by the Swiss government.

The project has been granted $125,000 (SFr170,600) a year for the next three years.

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