Although confinement in drug detoxification (“detox”) and re-education through labor (RTL) centers is the most common form of treatment for drug dependence in China, little has been published about the experience of drug users in such settings. We conducted an assessment of the impact of detention on drug users' access to HIV prevention and treatment services and consequent threats to fundamental human rights protections.
Methods and Findings
Chinese government HIV and anti-narcotics legislation and policy documents were reviewed, and in-depth and key informant interviews were conducted with 19 injection drug users (IDUs) and 20 government and nongovernmental organization officials in Nanning and Baise, Guangxi Province. Significant contradictions were found in HIV and antinarcotics policies, exemplified by the simultaneous expansion of community-based methadone maintenance therapy and the increasing number of drug users detained in detox and RTL center facilities. IDU study participants reported, on average, having used drugs for 14 y (range 8–23 y) and had been confined to detox four times (range one to eight times) and to RTL centers once (range zero to three times). IDUs expressed an intense fear of being recognized by the police and being detained, regardless of current drug use. Key informants and IDUs reported that routine HIV testing, without consent and without disclosure of the result, was the standard policy of detox and RTL center facilities, and that HIV-infected detainees were not routinely provided medical or drug dependency treatment, including antiretroviral therapy. IDUs received little or no information or means of HIV prevention, but reported numerous risk behaviors for HIV transmission while detained.
Legal and policy review, and interviews with recently detained IDUs and key informants in Guangxi Province, China, found evidence of anti-narcotics policies and practices that appear to violate human rights and imperil drug users' health.
Based on their review of Chinese government legislation and policy documents, and using interviews with recently detained injection drug users and officials in Guangxi Province, Elizabeth Cohen and Joseph Amon find evidence of antinarcotics policies and practices that may compromise the health and human rights of drug users.
Ever since the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) epidemic began, needle sharing by injection drug users (IDUs) has been a major transmission route for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the blood-borne virus that causes AIDS. In China, for example, the AIDS epidemic began in earnest in 1989 when 146 HIV-positive IDUs were identified in Southwest Yunnan. By 1998, HIV infections had been reported throughout China, 60%–70% of which were in IDUs. These days, nearly half of new HIV infections in China are associated with injection drug use and 266,000 of the 700,000 HIV-positive people in China are drug users. Faced with these figures, the Chinese government has recently introduced measures to reduce HIV transmission among the estimated 3–4 million IDUs in China. These measures include increased provision of methadone maintenance treatment clinics and needle exchanges and the establishment of HIV prevention programs that target IDUs.
Why Was This Study Done?
Alongside these progressive public-health practices, China has extremely punitive anti-narcotics policies. IDUs are routinely confined without legal review in drug detoxification centers or sent to re-education through labor (RTL) centers, sometimes for many years. In 2005, these centers housed more than 350,000 drug users yet little is known about the conditions in these centers or how the Chinese anti-narcotic policy affects human rights or access to HIV prevention and treatment services. In this study, the researchers investigated these issues by interviewing IDUs and “key informants” (government officials and members of nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] who provide services to IDUs) about their experiences of detoxification centers and RTL centers in two cities in Guangxi Province, China.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers recruited 19 IDUs who had been recently confined in a detoxification center or RTL center and 20 key informants (including a doctor at a detoxification center and a former RTL center guard). In the interviews the researchers used a semi-structured questionnaire to ask the participants about their experiences of detoxification centers and RTL centers. All the IDUs reported that they were repeatedly tested for HIV while in detention but never given their test results even when they asked for them. Key informants confirmed that repeated HIV testing without result disclosure is the current policy in detoxification centers and RTL centers. All the IDUs expressed concerns about inadequate access to health care in detention. In particular, most of the IDUs who were taking antiretroviral drugs before detention were unable to continue their treatment during detention, although two received antiretroviral drugs by negotiating with their guards. The IDUs and key informants also both noted that very little information or means of HIV prevention was provided in the detoxification centers and RTL centers and that HIV-related risk behaviors, including injection drug use and unsafe sex, occurred in both types of center. Finally, the IDUs reported that their fear of being recognized by the police and detained even if not taking drugs prevented them from seeking HIV tests, HIV treatment, and help for their drug addiction.
What Do These Findings Mean?
This study has several limitations in addition to its small size. For example, because the IDUs were self selected—they responded to posters asking if they would be interviewed—their views may not be representative of all IDUs. Similarly, the key informants who were interviewed might have had different opinions from those who chose not to participate. Furthermore, the results reported here cannot be generalized to other areas of China. Nevertheless, the consistent experiences reported by the IDUs and confirmed by the key informants suggest that China's anti-narcotic policies and practices violate the human rights of IDUs and put their health in danger by making it hard for them to access HIV prevention and treatment or adequate treatment for their drug addiction. This situation, if not remedied, is likely to jeopardize China's attempts to control its HIV epidemic.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050234.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Steve Koester
Avert, an international AIDS charity, provides information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including HIV and AIDS in China and HIV prevention, harm reduction, and injecting drug use
The UNAIDS 2008 Country Progress Report provides up-to-date details about the AIDS situation in China
HIVInSite provides links to more information about HIV/AIDS in China.
Human Rights Watch works on health and human rights and human rights developments in China
The US National Institute on Drug Abuse provides a booklet entitled Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research Based Guide (in English and Spanish)
UN Office on Drugs and Crime has information on HIV/AIDS in prisons