What is harm reduction?

There are an estimated 16 million people who inject drugs in over 148 countries around the world.1This practice can carry significant health risks, including increased exposure to HIV, hepatitis C and hepatitis B.2 Yet repressive drug policies and practices create and exacerbate the harms associated with illicit drug use. People who use drugs are regularly harassed and detained, subjected to involuntary and abusive treatment procedures, and denied life-saving medical care. This is true despite evidence that people who use drugs can benefit from many health services even before abstaining from drug use, and that the denial of services makes them and their communities more vulnerable to a range of health and social problems.3

“Harm reduction” refers to policies, programs, and practices aimed at reducing drug-related risks and harms by advancing the health and human rights of people who use drugs.4 As Harm Reduction International notes, “The defining features are the focus on the prevention of harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use itself, and the focus on people who continue to use drugs.”5 This approach recognizes that “people unable or unwilling to abstain from drug use can still make positive choices to protect their own health in addition to the health of their families and communities.”6 Harm reduction thus seeks to create an enabling environment for people who use drugs to protect their health and other human rights by providing them with evidence-based information, services, and resources.7

While harm reduction refers to an approach, rather than a set of health interventions, the term is commonly applied to a number of measures designed to minimize drug-related risks, particularly in the context of injection drug use. Examples include needle and syringe programs to reduce syringe sharing and reuse; opioid substitution therapy to reduce drug cravings (e.g., methadone and buprenorphine); opioid medications to relieve pain (e.g., morphine); drug-consumption rooms to facilitate access to health care; route-transition interventions to promote non-injecting drug administration; and overdose prevention practices (e.g., naloxone to reverse opioid overdose).8 Harm reduction measures also encompass broader projects to help people who use drugs access their economic, social, and political rights—including outreach and education programs, provision of legal services, and creation of public policies that are supportive of health.9

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Human Rights Resource Guide – 2014-03-12.

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