Theses Doctoral

HIV among Drug Users in Poland; the Paradoxes of an Epidemic

Malinowska-Sempruch, Kasia

Since 1988 when the first HIV positive drug user was identified in Poland, for close to two decades, the predominant route of HIV transmission has been through injecting drug use. In mid 2000s, Polish officials reported that injecting drug use no longer contributed to incrasing HIV incidence. The consequences of such a statement are that many of the structural and personal risks associated with HIV infection go unaddressed, that drug users are neglected by HIV prevention efforts, that HIV treatment is not made available to drug users and that the policy environment does not adequately support effective public health initiatives.
This case study is based on documentation, archival records, interviews, participant observation, and physical artifacts shows that these assertions were made, and continue to be repeated, in a highly political context. Poland is a post-socialist state with strong neoliberal leanings, and it is highly invested in successful integration with the European Union. Powerful Catholic Church serves as an important backdrop. While people considered "at risk" now have more freedom to conduct their lives, they also have a set of neoliberal expectations and religious pressures placed on them. Country's geographic location adds to this complexity - situated between "Old Europe" where HIV problem has been successfully contained and the former Soviet Union, where the HIV incidence among drug users is the highest in the world, Poland attempts to align itself with the success of the West. Furthermore, examination of the available data suggests that the assertions made by Polish officials omit numerous variables.
My research shows that even though Polish leadership in the area of HIV and drug policy wishes to resemble Western Europe, Poland does not meet international standards for the prevention of HIV transmission. The interviews I conducted, as well as the review of the literature on drug and HIV policies and programs suggest that these services are scattered, often unavailable, and that their number is stagnating, at best, and in some cases, even decreasing. This maybe a direct result of lack of engagement of drug users in their design. Excluded from the discussion of risk, drug users are thus not the focus of prevention efforts.
Based on gathered data, there are seven crucial issues that require immediate action if Poland is to manage HIV prevention and care for people who use drugs in a manner consistent with the international standards. The areas requiring action are: a change in the drug policy from the current very punitive approach, expansion of needle and syringe programs and other harm reduction services, improved data collection and an increase in the availability of HIV testing, scaled-up substitution treatment, improved quality of other forms of drug treatment, greater investment in civil society organizations, improved access to HIV treatment, and educational and training efforts that encourage greater attention to HIV related matters across disciplines.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Parker, Richard G.
Dr.P.H., Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University
Published Here
June 26, 2017