Following the imprisonment of Maxim Popov in April 2010, sentenced to seven years jail primarily for the promotion of HIV prevention efforts in Uzbekistan, the International AIDS Society notes with alarm the detention of a medical practitioner working in HIV prevention in Ukraine.
Illya Podolyan, a 62-year old physician providing opioid substitution therapy for people using drugs, was detained on May 28 by Odessa police and charged with alleged crimes relating to drugs trafficking.
"This arrest is yet another example of committed professionals being subjected to harassment, detention, and even imprisonment as a consequence of implementing best practice HIV prevention and care," Elly Katabira, president of the IAS, says. "Implementing evidence-based responses should never be a crime, and this arrest is especially disturbing in a country such as Ukraine, which has in recent times seen the start of a turn around in its HIV epidemic due to improved policies and the efforts of professionals such as Podolyan."
Substitution therapy is highly effective at reducing the spread of HIV in epidemic's such as Ukraine's which are fueled primarily by injection-drug use. Substitution treatment programs and the use of methadone and buprenorphine, drugs prescribed by Podolyan for his patients, are legal in Ukraine and are included in the National Programme for HIV Prevention, Treatment, Care, and Support for 2009-2013, approved by law in February 2009.
In practice, however, medical and other health personnel involved in providing substitution therapy are subject to criminal prosecution, harassment and intimidation. Podolyan's arrest is unfortunately consistent with the systematic and widespread harassment of OST professionals and patients carried out by Ukrainian law enforcement officers across the country.
The IAS is strongly urging that the Ukrainian government honor the guidelines of their National Programme for HIV Prevention, Treatment, Care, and Support, to ensure better protection for their HIV professionals and to urgently review the charges against Podolyan. Suffering from a number of medical conditions, including chronic heart disease, cardiac failures, and chronic arthritis, Podolyan's health has deteriorated rapidly during his incarceration. Since he poses no threat to public security while he awaits trial, the IAS says, it also appeals for his urgent release from custody.
"Dr. Illya Podolyan's detention, just before the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, is a sad testament to the serious human rights violations which continue to hamper HIV prevention and treatment efforts in Eastern Europe," said Katabira. "AIDS 2010 was held in Vienna to highlight the state of the epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and to stress the need for a rational approach to drug policy in the region. While the attendance of over 1,200 participants from Eastern Europe and Central Asia during the conference gives us real hope that policy makers are listening, the detention of Dr. Podolyan is a stark reminder of how far the region still has to go."
"As Dr. Podolyan is unable to receive the medical treatment he urgently requires while he is in custody, his imprisonment constitutes a violation to his individual human right to health," said Mats Ahnlund, acting executive director of the IAS. "Dr. Podolyan has been imprisoned for attempting to reverse his country's growing HIV epidemic through providing services which are not only scientifically proven to reduce the spread of HIV amongst drug users, but also included in the country's national HIV program. The Ukrainian government should be doing everything it can to support these programmes and to acknowledge the critical role they play in the national response to HIV, rather than allowing the persecution of those who implement them. I urge all influential political and public health leaders to join IAS in calling on the Ukrainian government, and on all other governments who permit the harassment, vilification and unwarranted imprisonment of HIV professionals, to ensure better protection for those working on the frontline of the HIV epidemic."