Egypt: Needle Sharing by Drug Users a Dangerous Sign

Dr. Ehab El Kharrat, who has treated Cairo drug users for 16 years, did not know that many of his clients were sharing needles until he recently began discussing HIV awareness with them. Syringes and needles are cheap and available without a prescription in Egypt's pharmacies, so he assumed that IV drug users would have no reason to share or reuse a dirty needle. But in speaking to his clients, El Kharrat discovered a superstition among users that getting new needles jinxes the chance accessing more drugs. "This was a notion widely spread among our addicts," he noted.

El Kharrat is the director of Freedom, a Presbyterian organization located near Cairo's main train station that reaches out to drug users. Since its inception in 1989, Freedom has served approximately 3,000 clients, treated 450 people in an 80-bed hospital setting, and helped 250-300 people kick their addictions, said El Kharrat.

About a year ago, Dr. Cherif Soliman, who runs the Cairo office of the U.S.-based Family Health International agency, approached El Kharrat about developing a pilot program to raise HIV awareness, something not previously offered by Freedom. "Even with my long experience, I didn't ask much about sharing needle practices and unsafe sex," said El Kharrat. "But when we systematically asked about it, we found that 67 percent of the people we talked to are practicing things that would give them HIV," he said.

Freedom's employees not only educate clients about HIV, but also encourage users to get tested anonymously at a center that FHI helped the government establish. About 40 clients and a few Freedom staffers have been tested. While a few tested positive for HIV, two-thirds were diagnosed with hepatitis C. "I'm pretty much scared ... that we're sitting on a ticking time bomb," said El Kharrat.