Combination harm reduction may be more effective and cost-effective than partial approaches alone

The cost-effectiveness of harm reduction.

Wilson DP, Donald B, Shattock AJ, Wilson D, Fraser-Hurt N. Int J Drug Policy. 2015 Feb;26 Suppl 1:S5-11. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2014.11.007. Epub 2014 Dec 1.

HIV prevalence worldwide among people who inject drugs (PWID) is around 19%. Harm reduction for PWID includes needle-syringe programs (NSPs) and opioid substitution therapy (OST) but often coupled with antiretroviral therapy (ART) for people living with HIV. Numerous studies have examined the effectiveness of each harm reduction strategy. This commentary discusses the evidence of effectiveness of the packages of harm reduction services and their cost-effectiveness with respect to HIV-related outcomes as well as estimate resources required to meet global and regional coverage targets. NSPs have been shown to be safe and very effective in reducing HIV transmission in diverse settings; there are many historical and very recent examples in diverse settings where the absence of, or reduction in, NSPs have resulted in exploding HIV epidemics compared to controlled epidemics with NSP implementation. NSPs are relatively inexpensive to implement and highly cost-effective according to commonly used willingness-to-pay thresholds. There is strong evidence that substitution therapy is effective, reducing the risk of HIV acquisition by 54% on average among PWID. OST is relatively expensive to implement when only HIV outcomes are considered; other societal benefits substantially improve the cost-effectiveness ratios to be highly favourable. Many studies have shown that ART is cost-effective for keeping people alive but there is only weak supportive, but growing evidence, of the additional effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of ART as prevention among PWID. Packages of combined harm reduction approaches are highly likely to be more effective and cost-effective than partial approaches. The coverage of harm reduction programs remains extremely low across the world. The total annual costs of scaling up each of the harm reduction strategies from current coverage levels, by region, to meet WHO guideline coverage targets are high with ART greatest, followed by OST and then NSPs. But scale-up of all three approaches is essential. These interventions can be cost-effective by most thresholds in the short-term and cost-saving in the long-term.

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Editor’s notes: The spread of HIV among people who inject drugs has driven epidemics throughout regions of eastern Europe, and central and South-East Asia. In eastern Europe and central Asia, the majority of HIV infections have been attributed to injecting drug use. Some countries in the Middle East and North Africa region have also been experiencing rapidly emerging HIV epidemics among people who inject drugs. Harm reduction refers to methods of reducing health risks when eliminating them may not be possible. This paper provides a comprehensive review of evidence on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of different harm reduction approaches. These include needle- syringe programmes, opioid substitution therapy (OST), and antiretroviral therapy (ART), when implemented in different settings. Importantly, alongside considering the potential benefits of each approach separately, it makes the case that combination  prevention strategies are synergistic, and may achieve multiple impacts. Sadly still however, the coverage of harm reduction remains very low across the world. An estimated 90% of people who inject drugs worldwide are not accessing needle-syringe programmes, despite this being a highly effective and cost-effective programme. Along with the need for a greater investment in harm reduction, there are socio-political and legislative reasons for poor coverage of harm reduction. This cannot be improved without first addressing the stigma, discrimination and intolerance that restricts the expansion of harm reduction programmes in many settings. Addressing these barriers remains of paramount importance for facilitating effective harm reduction programmes. Encouragingly however, high OST coverage has been reported in Iran, Czech Republic and western Europe, and several countries in Asia and the Middle East have begun to scale-up their programmes. China has recently had the largest OST scale-up programme in the world. Uptake of ART by people living with HIV who inject drugs illustrates the largest disparities with what is required or deemed to be appropriate access. Only 14% of people living with HIV who inject drugs globally, have access to ART, with the largest gaps in ART provision in eastern Europe and central Asia. The further expansion of harm reduction is urgently needed, both to meet WHO targets, and to achieve the UNAIDS 90-90-90 target.

Asia, Europe, Oceania
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