Awareness of the risks of catching HIV/AIDS and other diseases among Afghanistan's estimated 19,000 intravenous drug users is rising, but there is no reason for complacency, say experts.
"There is still potential for HIV transmission to reach an alarming level," Catherine Todd, an expert from Columbia University, told IRIN in Kabul, adding that harm reduction programmes must increase in order to prevent an epidemic.
A recent survey of 483 injecting drug users carried out by Save the Children US and Columbia University indicated that overall awareness about diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and syphilis had increased. NGOs have been helping to raise awareness and the free distribution of needles and condoms had helped.
However, the health risks are apparent from the survey, which showed that 37 percent of respondents were hepatitis C positive; two percent were HIV-positive; and one percent positive for syphilis.
Over 900,000 people in Afghanistan were considered drug addicts and many of them had little awareness of addiction-related diseases, according to a 2005 survey of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which also provided the figure of 19,000 intravenous drug users.
Drug addict Sayed Mohammad thought HIV could only be transmitted through sexual intercourse, but now he knows sharing a needle could also pass on the virus.
"I was totally ignorant," he told IRIN in Kabul, adding "I am still an addict, but not an injecting one."
Little scope for treatment
Eighty percent of respondents said they wanted help - treatment and rehabilitation - to get over their addiction.
However, treatment and rehabilitation services meet only 0.25 percent of the needs nationwide, according to UNODC. There are only about 100 beds in a handful of specialist centres dedicated to tackling addiction.
Several drug users in Kabul told IRIN they would have to wait months to be admitted to a rehabilitation centre.
"Someone in my village [in Balkh Province] told me to come to Kabul for treatment so I sold all my possessions... and came here but I have been waiting for over a month to get admitted," Gul Nabi, a drug user, told IRIN outside the office of an NGO which runs addiction treatment services.
Lack of funds was the main problem: "We only have about US$700,000 for all treatment and rehabilitation activities in the country, which is very little," Abdullah Wardak, a Health Ministry official, told IRIN.
Afghanistan has been producing over 90 percent of the world's heroin and opiates since 2002, according to UNODC. The ready availability of narcotics has contributed to a rise in the number of drug addicts, aid agencies say.
Poverty, unemployment, mental illness and depression, lack of awareness and various other socio-economic factors are driving many Afghan youths to drug abuse and addiction, according to the Save the Children/Columbia University survey.
"Everyone knows Afghanistan as a [drug] producer but few know it as a consumer," said Todd.
Addiction is believed to be catastrophic for individuals: Most lose family ties, personal dignity, their job (if they have one) and access to basic services. Many addicts turn to crime to get their next fix, experts say.
Some drug addicts are also prone to abuse by insurgent groups who may cajole or force them into suicide missions, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a 2007 report .
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions