Fewer than one in every 10 injecting drug users have access to basic HIV prevention and treatment services, even though they comprise almost one third of new infections outside sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Joint UN Programme Against HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
In its latest review of the global response to the AIDS pandemic, released last week, UNAIDS found that the social and legal stigmas surrounding drug use mean people with drug dependence problems are often unwilling or unable to use HIV treatment programmes because of fears of recrimination.
"Only eight per cent of injecting drug users receive HIV prevention services despite increased political commitment and funding worldwide to tackle the AIDS pandemic," a statement issued by the UN Information Centre in Accra said.
Anindya Chatterjee, UNAIDS Adviser on Prevention and Public Policy, said the care and treatment for drug users was lagging behind the overall response to AIDS.
"We know that focused HIV prevention programmes have been successful in reducing HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs," Mr Chatterjee said.
"In countries and cities where harm reduction programmes have been implemented early and on a large scale, HIV prevention programmes have been successful - down to less than 5 per cent in some cases."
The review cited examples in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Bangladesh, Brazil, Hong Kong and China.
"But given drug use is illegal in most countries and often punishable by incarceration; some of the HIV prevention programmes tailored for injecting drug users has met strong resistance from governments and local communities."
The review noted that such initiatives worked best when they followed an advocacy campaign in which support was established first among local community representatives and then among the mass media.
It warned that programmes rarely achieved immediate success and that funding for these initiatives should be solid, flexible and sustainable to overcome early concerns about the merit of the prevention services.