NYU Researchers Predict an HIV Spike Due to Heroin Use in Colombia

Maria Torres
Needle exchange programs are one way organizations are fighting the rise of HIV infections through Heroin injections.

Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, the principal investigator for NYU’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research, is investigating the risk of HIV infection via heroin use, and possible solutions to the emergence of HIV in Colombia.

HIV infection through heroin injection has escalated in Colombia since the increase of consumption of the drug in the 1990s. Because of an increase in local consumption in the Colombian cities of Medellin and Pereira, researchers are worried that HIV infections may increase as well.

The study showed that in Medellin and Pereira, a great number of users shared syringes and other tools, and that 2.7% of the participants in the study were HIV positive. Because there’s still low HIV prevalence in Colombia, enacting preventative measures now could ensure that an outbreak’s effects are limited. Among what can be done to prevent an epidemic is providing clean syringes and expanding opioid substitution therapy — a treatment to help heroin dependent people wean off the drug.

Mateau-Gelabret said time is essential in responding to the emergence of HIV in Colombia.

“Now we are in a critical moment, where we need to implement those practices fast enough so the epidemic doesn’t spread through those injection networks,” Mateu-Gelabert said. “We have a window of two, three, four years.”

Mateu-Gelabert expressed that the Colombian government is taking action to prevent an epidemic.

“They are concerned regarding what’s going on, they are aware, they have very interesting harm reduction policies,” Mateu-Gelabert said. “They are interested in pursuing those harm reduction practices, however at times it is difficult to get that kind of money.”

Colombian students at NYU are already aware of this problem, and the many challenges that the government has to face to overcome it. CAS junior Juan Manuel Calero explained the multidimensionality of the issue.

“It’s such a complex issue because on the one hand you have sexual education, on the other hand you have drug education,” Calero said. “It’s such a massive sprawling issue that overlaps with so many different things. There’s no one solution to it.”

He explained the realities of drug addiction in Cali, a major city in Colombia.

“In Cali, if you just walk through the city or drive through the city you do see people that are clearly addicts, and they’re just kind of there in some parts of town,” Calero said. “That’s surprising, but it’s a reality.”

CAS senior Catalina Múnera explained some of the projects that took place to help people with drug addiction. Among these projects was a farm that helped addicts recover.  

“A rehab center/farm, so people would work on agriculture, and produce certain things, while they were recovering so they would gain skills that later they could use in real life so then they could get a job,” Múnera said.

By implementing harm reduction policies such as a needle exchange program or rehab centers, Colombia could set a precedent of prevention to other countries.

“Europe, Canada, the United States, are countries that have implemented harm reduction services, but they are too late, when already the HIV epidemic took hold.” Mateu-Gelabert said. “Colombia could become an extraordinary example for the rest of the world.”

Email Maria Torres at [email protected] 

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