VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – More than 35 national and international organizations came together on June 9 in the largest Baltic state, Lithuania, to issue a formal public address to Lithuanian leaders demanding that they continue to scale up prevention efforts to stop the spread of HIV, particularly by increasing access to clean needles and other harm reduction methods in an ongoing effort to protect intravenous (IV) drug users from HIV infection through sharing needles.
Holding this call to action in the large and politically active city of Vilnius held particular importance since, beginning in July, Lithuania will be the first of the three Baltic States to hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) since joining the EU in 2004. This delegation ascribes the country with responsibility for the function of the upper house of the EU legislature.
Among other groups, AHF Europe – the European branch of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest global AIDS nonprofit – joined the effort near the Radisson Blu Hotel Lietuva on Monday afternoon, along with local HIV/AIDS organization Demetra, which has been working alongside AHF Europe in Eastern Europe and Central Asia since 2010.
“We strongly encourage our politicians to take responsibility and active participation in order to keep the commitments and implement international guidelines and recommendations,” said Svetlana Kulsis, Association Head of Demetra, who spoke at the rally.
The groups called upon the authorities of the Lithuanian Ministry of Health, Parliament, and Vilnius Municipality to change policy to better prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, namely by scaling up “harm reduction” efforts. Harm reduction programs reduce the risk of spreading HIV through shared IV drug needles by increasing access to clean needles for the public, offering methadone substitution therapy, and also providing sites where IV drug users can go and trust they will be receiving sterile tools.
“Despite some achievements in harm reduction in Lithuania compared with other Eastern European and Central Asian countries, we lack evidence-based, effective interventions – such as needle and syringe programs and opioid substitution treatment (OST) – in managing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Access to quality treatment in Eastern Europe remains unacceptably low, particularly among people who use drugs,” said Zoya Shabarova, Bureau Chief for AHF Europe.
Eight speakers – representing Lithuania, Portugal, Netherlands, and Russia – spoke at the rally, including Lithuanian music star Jurgis Didziulis, Lithuanian Minister of Health Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis, Julian Hows from the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), and Ricardo Fuertes from Portugal’s Grupo Português de Activistas sobre Tratamento de VIH/SIDA (GAT).