African countries urged to champion drug policy reforms

Kenya-based Drug Policy, Harm Reduction and Research Consultant Bernice Auma Opondi has singled out policy constraints and lack of coordination at national level as some of the barriers to the implementation of harm reduction initiatives in most African countries.

Opondi further highlighted a criminalizing environment, societal stigma (self-stigma) and discrimination, healthcare-related stigma, systematic discrimination (employment and education), lack of awareness in the policymakers and family leading to lack of support for reforms, lack of domestic funding due to other competing needs like education and healthcare and socio-cultural and religious beliefs as other barriers to the noble efforts.

She was speaking at the 2022 Harm Reduction Exchange Conference, which took place on December 1, 2022, in Nairobi, Kenya.

The conference was held under the theme ‘Harm Reduction: Making a Difference in Africa’.

Integra Africa Principal, Dr Tendai Mhizha

Presenting on ‘Comparative Harm Reduction strategies and innovation’, Opondi said it is high time African countries started championing drug policy reforms, domestic funding, diversion and social reintegration, and the scale-up of harm reduction services to primary healthcare level, as well as decriminalization for small quantity possession for personal use and legalization of cannabis for commercial use.

She also appealed for a human rights approach to policy and implementation, more research on a socio-cultural approach to stigma and discrimination, inclusion of healthcare financing in addiction treatment and inclusion of mental health services in addiction treatment.

“Drug use is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviours from severe use to total abstinence, and we must  acknowledge that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others. Harm reduction was  founded on kindness, compassion and caring, and the acceptance of the fact that, for better or worse, abuse of prescription drugs and illicit drug use is part of the world and we need to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than  ignore or condemn,” she said.

Opondi further stressed that there is a need for a community driven approach to Harm Reduction implementation and research, as well as a multi-sectoral approach to the drug problem in creating awareness, prevention and access to treatment through media, workplace, school, and church, among other community based organisations.

The expert said Harm Reduction calls for the non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use drugs and the communities in which they live in, in order to assist them in reducing harm.

Senegalese celebrated oncologist and Professor of Surgery at the Cancer Institute, Professor Abdoul Kassé, described harm reduction as a powerful public health tool that is capable of significantly reducing cancer cases in Africa.

Kassé disclosed that these initiatives have already benefitted many people in public health.

“It applies to areas where there is a need to reduce the harm associated with a practice or consumption of a substance that is overused in society leading to increased morbidity and mortality. Innovative Harm Reduction initiatives will help to keep more Africans alive. Tobacco Harm Reduction initiatives, including the use of popular e-cigarettes, nicotine patches, and chewing gums, have continued to generate a lot of misunderstanding in both the public health community and in the media,” he said.

“However, there is evidence that the use of potentially less harmful alternatives than cigarettes for those who are not willing or cannot give up smoking with currently approved methods may be a solution, not necessarily the best for everyone, but by far better than continuous smoking.”

But Integra Africa Principal, Dr. Tendai Mhizha, emphasised the need for journalists and media houses to play their role in handling misinformation and disinformation in the tobacco Harm Reduction discourse that is actually perpetuating the death and disease caused by people continuing to smoke combustible cigarettes.

Mhizha observed that there has been a lot of disinformation surrounding the topic of nicotine and the alleged negative effects that e-cigarettes have on public health, which has led to policies that disfavour risk-reducing products and narratives that completely deny their benefits.

“The media has the difficult responsibility to curb the scourge of disinformation and misinformation on Harm Reduction just like on other socio-political stances that are prescriptive and do not uphold consumers’ right to healthier lifestyle choices,” she said.

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