Activists push for heroin help in U.N. Russia visit

MOSCOW Thu Feb 10, 2011 2:47pm EST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Activists have asked the UN human rights chief to pressure Russia to legalize the heroin substitute methadone when she visits next week amid a worsening HIV/AIDS crisis, an international health group said Thursday.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay will meet President Dmitry Medvedev, government officials and around 60 rights campaigners during a five-day visit to Moscow.

"This is a national health crisis and a human rights priority in Russia that must be raised at the highest levels," said senior human rights analyst Damon Barrett from the London-based International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA).

The IHRA and 16 other HIV-focused rights organizations have sent a letter to Pillay asking her to push for HIV/AIDS and drug-fighting measures including the introduction of methadone, during her meetings with Russian government.

The UN's World Health Organization (WHO) says Russia has one of the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world, fueled up to three million heroin addicts, many of whom use dirty needles, local health organizations say.

Unlike most countries, Russia refuses to finance harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges, or to legalize the replacement drug methadone.

The Health Ministry says there is no proof methadone is effective, while the country's top doctor Gennady Onishchenko has called methadone "just another narcotic."

"The fact that the government's policy is so incomprehensible is what makes it so frustrating," Barrett said.

The WHO says there are a million HIV-positive people in Russia, and deems methadone essential in fighting the epidemic.

Pillay will meet Russian activist Irina Teplinskaya during her visit, said the Moscow-based Andrey Rylkov Foundation, for whom Teplinskaya volunteers. HIV-positive and a heroin user, Teplinskaya has become a symbol of Russia's drug woes.

"Because there is no opioid substitution therapy in Russia, drug-dependent people are not able to receive treatment for HIV... they are forced to spend whole days acquiring money in a criminal way so they can buy drugs," Teplinskaya said in a speech she will deliver to Pillay Sunday.

(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Andrew Roche)

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