Needle-exchange on Kenya’s east coast

Kenya’s east coast is part of a major route for the drug trade, particularly for opiates such as heroin. While heroin is readily available, access to safer injecting equipment is not.

We helped establish a needle exchange programme in four towns in the east coast of Kenya, and in December 2012 these programmes reached 140 people who inject drugs. It may seem like a modest figure, but it shows harm reduction starting to make its mark in Kenya after years of resistance.

The work was part of a four-year, five country Community Action on Harm Reduction programme (CAHR).

Learning from others’ experience

KANCO, the Alliance’s CAHR partner in Kenya, took part in exchange visits to learn from projects in Malaysia, Mauritius, Tanzania, and Ukraine.

For example, in Pahang, Malaysia, many fishermen cope with the harsh reality of a life spent at sea by injecting heroin. KANCO was able to learn from outreach teams there, who have also experienced resistance to harm reduction programmes. “People equate drug users as being HIV-positive. There’s stigma around this, so it makes it hard for people who use drugs to be accepted,” says Zulkefi Abdulleadin, manager of the local outreach programme DiC Pahang, which is supported by the Malaysian AIDS Council. “When we started a needle exchange in 2007 we experienced a police raid while doing outreach. Now we find them friendly, they’re ok and let us get on with our job.”

“The reception of the local community is also changing through the CAHR programme,” says Abdulleadin. “This has come about through the work we are doing with village chiefs. We go from one village to another to explain what the programme does.”

The figures speak for themselves. Back in 2002, 18 people per day tested positive for HIV in Malaysia; mostly people who inject drugs. Now the number of new infections has halved, thanks in large part to grassroots schemes such as DiC Pahang.

KANCO is hoping to replicate similar success, inspired by seeing how deeply-held beliefs within tight-knit communities can change. Other organisations in Africa are also following KANCO’s journey with keen interest.

Alliance work on harm reduction

The Alliance is one of the largest civil society organisations delivering harm reduction services. To date, our CAHR programme has reached 136,000 people who inject drugs and their partners and families, across five countries. 

“When we started a needle exchange in 2007 we experienced a police raid while doing outreach."

— Zulkefi Abdulleadin