Harm reduction

The Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy approved the National Drug Strategy 2010-2015 at its meeting held in Perth on 25 February 2011. Underpinning this strategy is a harm minimisation approach to drug use.

Harm reduction is one of the three elements of harm minimisation. Harm minimisation is an integrated approach incorporating demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction strategies.

  • Supply reduction strategies aim to disrupt the production and supply of illicit drugs and control and regulate licit substances
  • Demand reduction strategies aim to prevent the initiation of harmful drug use.  This includes abstinence based strategies and treatment to reduce drug use
  • Harm reduction strategies aim to directly reduce drug-related harm to individuals, families and communities. It is an approach based on public health principles.

While the reduction of the supply and demand for drugs focuses on avoidance and abstinence, harm reduction addresses the potential to reduce harms in pre-existing drug use which may also lead to abstinence.

Harm reduction does not condone licit or illicit drug use, but acknowledges that, despite efforts to control supply and demand, many will continue to use drugs.

While injecting drug use continues to exist in our society, the provision of sterile injecting equipment through needle and syringe programs (NSPs) is an important harm reduction strategy to reduce the spread of blood borne viruses such as HIV.

Success in Australia

The timely embrace of harm reduction interventions meant that, in Australia, HIV infection continues to be rare among both injecting drug users and the wider community.  In countries where NSPs were not immediately established, including the USA, HIV spread rapidly among injecting drug users and, in turn, to the wider community. In Australia, the level of HIV infection among people who inject drugs has remained around 1 per cent, compared to other countries with levels over 50 per cent.

Australia’s HIV/AIDS Strategy has received international recognition.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS Best Practice Collection:

[In Australia], early and vigorous HIV prevention programmes aimed at injecting drug users resulted in stable and low rates of HIV prevalence among drug users and related population groups. It is generally agreed that this prompt – and sustained – action fundamentally altered the course of the country’s epidemic.