Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, speech at the 67th Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Vienna, Austria – 15 March 2024

Read Assistant Minister McBride's speech to the 67th Commission on Narcotic Drugs side event titled ‘End inequalities end AIDS – On the fast-track: Scaling up evidence-based services to address transmission of HIV, and viral hepatitis among people who use drugs’.

The Hon Emma McBride MP
Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
Assistant Minister Rural and Regional Health

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Thank you chair, distinguished representatives and guests.

I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to share some of Australia’s experience and efforts in addressing the transmission of HIV, and viral hepatitis among people who use drugs.

A longstanding priority for Australia has been to make significant progress in addressing communicable diseases, including those associated with drug use, and we remain committed to actively contributing to global responses, which complement important aspects of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as well as upholding human rights and international drug policy commitments.

A strong national policy framework has underpinned Australia’s prioritisation of and commitment to addressing communicable diseases.

The framework consists of national strategy documents addressing the impact of Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV, and bloodborne viruses and sexually transmissible infections more broadly.

In addition to the strategies, the Australian Government established the HIV Taskforce in 2023 to accelerate Australia’s national HIV response.

Mark Butler, Australia’s Minister for Health and Ged Kearney, my fellow Assistant Minister, co-chaired this taskforce and I want to acknowledge their leadership.

Australia has committed to virtual elimination of HIV transmission by 2030.

The taskforce delivered a report containing 25 recommended actions, including the need for ongoing support for needle and syringe programs to achieve this goal.

Also in 2023, Australia’s Health Minister, Mark Butler, restated Australia’s understanding and acceptance of the science of Undetectable = Untransmissible, or U=U, as a fundamental HIV policy foundation.

Key to Australia’s national policy framework is the principle of harm reduction.

Evidence shows approaches and services such as needle and syringe programs, safe-injecting facilities, education and awareness, alcohol and other drug treatment services, and peer support have all demonstrated effectiveness in reducing harms.

On this note, I’d like to acknowledge and reiterate the evidence-informed measures outlined in the UNODC/WHO/UNAIDS HIV Treatment and Care Technical Guides for People who Inject Drugs and for People who use Stimulant Drugs.

Needle and syringe programs

In Australia, we place significant importance on needle and syringe programs.

Sharing of contaminated needles and syringes is the primary cause of new infections with hepatitis C, and accounts for the vast majority of new cases among people who inject drugs in Australia.

Prevention efforts are therefore largely focused on addressing the risks associated with injecting-drug use.

As a pharmacist working in hospital and community settings, I have seen people benefit from our approach to harm reduction – particularly through opioid dependence treatment programs and needle and syringe programs.

In 2021, there were 4,218 needle and syringe programs in Australia, which distributed 50.2million needles and syringes to an estimated 74,327 people.

Needle and syringe programs coupled with services provided by peer-based organisations have also helped Australia maintain low HIV infection rates among people who inject drugs.

Safe injecting facilities

Another harm-reduction approach that has been implemented in 2 Australian states is safe-injecting facilities. 

These facilities provide a safer environment for people who inject drugs, including access to emergency care, clean injecting equipment, and referral pathways to rehabilitation and treatment services, as well as broader health and social services.

In addition to rolling out tailored harm-reduction programs, it is important to address punitive legislation and policies that perpetuate stigma, discrimination and harmful social norms.

These serve as barriers to health-seeking behaviour, including the criminalisation of HIV and injecting-drug use. 

Political, legal, and human rights barriers contribute to the inequalities and discrimination that undermine HIV responses.

This extends to people who inject drugs or are engaged in the criminal justice system.

Internationally, Australia is committed to working with global partners on these matters.

We are steadfast in our support to UNAIDS; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and the World Health Organization.

In 2022, we renewed our multi-year strategic partnership with UNAIDS, and in 2023 we committed $266 million from 2023–2025 to the Global Fund’s seventh replenishment.

We also provide direct support to Pacific and Southeast Asian countries for communicable disease prevention, treatment and control through our bilateral and regional development cooperation programs.

In closing, Australia reiterates the importance of utilising gender- and age-responsive harm-reduction approaches that prioritise public health outcomes and uphold human rights to address the transmission of HIV, and viral hepatitis among people who use drugs.

Thank you.


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