Saskia Jünger, health scientist at the University Hospital of Bonn, Germany, and member of the ATOME Project Management Team, and Marjolein Vranken, pharmacist and lawyer at the Utrecht Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences, the Netherlands, and member of the ATOME team.
The 8th ATOME (Access to Opioid Medication in Europe) national conference, held in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 19 February 2014 opened on an encouraging note. “We can be proud that the Ministry of Health has now started changing its strategy regarding opioid medicines”, said Associate Professor Audronė Astrauskienė from the Ministry of Health in her opening speech. She explained that 2013 had been a significant year for Lithuania in terms of access to opioid medication. In spring 2013, the International Harm Reduction conference was held in Vilnius, co-organised by two ATOME consortium partners – the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN), based in Vilnius, and Harm Reduction International. Later, during Lithuania’s presidency of the European Council, accessibility and abuse of opioid substances was a priority.
Sergey Votyagov, Executive Director of EHRN, highlighted concerns about harm reduction in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, emphasising that the risk of unsafe drug use is not limited only to the moment of injection with a contaminated needle: it starts when a country, where the person lives, bans the use of methadone. Different contributions demonstrated how stigma and prejudice about illegal drug use could lead to paradoxical measures causing even higher damage. For example, money is often used as an argument for the lack of effective approaches such as needle exchange programmes, while at the same time money is wasted on law enforcement. This was also confirmed by Associate Professor Emilis Subata from the Vilnius Centre for Substance Dependence and by a representative of the International Network of People who Use Drugs. On the occasion of a rapid increase of HIV infections in prisons in Lithuania, expert committees such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations recommended the rapid implementation of harm reduction programmes to prevent a further increase of infections by sharing unsafe needles. However, prisons cannot admit that they have a drug circulation problem since this means that someone has managed to bring the drugs in – reflecting negatively on the prison’s security. Consequently, instead of acknowledging the problem and implementing methadone treatment, funds were invested in a chemical fluid to detect particles of drugs at the entrance to the prison.
The one-day conference in Lithuania displayed a high level of openness with reflection among speakers and delegates on the situation in their own country. Instead of mere empty phrases, participants benefited from a thorough analysis of problems and underlying mechanisms. Why is it that myths are produced and re-produced? Who has an interest in this? One of the working groups addressed this question by discussing awareness of opioid medicines within the general population. Jurgita Poškeviciute from the coalition ‘Galiu gyventi’ (‘I live’) explained the cause of various myths around opioids and opiophobia. She noted that:
“Success stories of treatment are not visible in our public space. In the public rhetoric regarding opioids, we do not use evidence-based information. The media often shows a biased ‘demonising’ picture.”
Hence the need to establish new communication channels to convey a new message – for example by using social media and interactive tools to show real-life stories that help to promote understanding and respect towards people in need of opioid medicines.
Audronė Astrauskienė and Gražina Bobelienė from the Ministry of Health closed the conference expressing their gratitude to the ATOME project and to the team who analysed the barriers to opioid accessibility.
“It is very encouraging to see that obviously international universities are interested in our situation and we are grateful to benefit from the support they offer to us.”
The research leading to these results received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement no 222994.
Find out more …
- Click here to read more articles about the ATOME project on the EAPC blog.