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Swiss help Uzbekistan’s drug addicts

The entrance to the Swiss-sponsored support centre in the capital, Tashkent swissinfo.ch

Labelled as criminals, drug addicts in the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan are mostly rejected by society.

This content was published on January 9, 2004 - 14:35

But, backed by Swiss and local authorities, a support centre has been set up in the capital, Tashkent, where addicts can come together and collect clean needles.

One of the biggest hurdles in bringing drug addiction under control in Uzbekistan is the fact that its neighbour, Afghanistan, is the world’s largest producer of heroin.

As a result, Uzbekistan is one of the biggest marketplaces for the drug, with prices often as low as SFr0.30 ($0.24) per fix.

Marginalised by society and considered criminals by the government, Uzbek drug addicts often suffer in silence.

“If the police catch you injecting or with visible marks on your arms, you get three years in prison, unless you can pay to get out,” said Misha*, an HIV-positive heroin addict, who has already served nine years in prison for such offences.

His comments describe the official method of fighting drug addiction in the country.

But the problem continues to increase, and the authorities are now beginning to look into other methods of dealing with drug addicts.

Clean needles

With the backing of the Uzbek health ministry, Contact Net, a Swiss non-governmental organisation, created a support centre in 2002.

The Swiss Federal Health Office is also helping the centre, by providing SFr760,000 in funding between 2002 and 2005.

The centre aims to help addicts deal with the social problems that often go hand-in-hand with drug addiction, such as unemployment and the breakdown of family life, as well as helping to prevent the spread of Aids by supplying clean needles.

But the organisation also aims to change the public’s perception of drug addicts so that they are seen more as people who are ill and are therefore treated as such.

The centre distributes new needles at no cost - a system used in centres in Switzerland for several years - thanks to the commitment of young volunteers.

Natalya, the centre’s director, says she considers Switzerland a model for her aims in Uzbekistan.

“I’ve seen drug addicts in Switzerland living almost normal lives, with jobs and children,” she said.

Social problem

Timur, a volunteer at the centre who has been off drugs for two years, says many of his friends who are still addicted to heroin didn’t realise they needed help.

“Some are in prison, others died after being unaware that they could catch hepatitis or HIV by shooting up,” he said.

“I want to try to protect society because there is no guarantee that that my children won’t be affected by drug addiction later on,” said Malika, another volunteer.

Through their contacts, the volunteers go out and distribute new syringes to drug addicts they know who then hand them out to others. One of the aims of this is to raise awareness of the centre.

Between three and 25 people come to the centre each day, although others are still cautious about accepting help after years of persecution.

Volodya* has been coming to the centre for several months.

“It’s a useful place – there should be centres like this in all parts of the city,” he said. “But too many addicts are still scared of coming.”

*names have been changed

swissinfo, Jean-Didier Revoin and Marzio Pescia in Tashkent

In brief

Drug addicts in Uzbekistan are considered as criminals by the authorities and are often put in jail.

A new support centre for addicts in the capital, Tashkent, offers support and advice, as well as providing clean needles.

Switzerland’s Federal Health Office and a Swiss non-governmental organisation, Contact Net, helped to set up the centre.

The centre currently gets between three and 25 visitors a day.

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