Africa Urged to Embrace Harm Reduction as Transformative Public Health Strategy
Harm reduction entails interventions aimed at mitigating the adverse effects of health behaviours without necessarily eradicating these behaviours entirely or permanently.
Nairobi, Kenya – Stakeholders in the health sector are being challenged to adopt harm reduction as a guiding principle in the development of public health strategies across Africa, writes Winston Mwale.
Harm reduction entails interventions aimed at mitigating the adverse effects of health behaviours without necessarily eradicating these behaviors entirely or permanently.
Speaking during the third annual Harm Reduction Exchange event with the theme "Amplifying the voice of Harm Reduction advocacy across Africa," Dr. Kgosi Letlape, President of the African Medical Association and the Association of Medical Councils of Africa, urged African governments to consider harm reduction approaches in the regulation of public health challenges.
Dr. Letlape argued that harm reduction presents a more transformative strategy than prohibition-based policies and offers a more pragmatic approach compared to advocating for complete abstinence.
"Harm reduction represents a practical and transformative approach that integrates community-driven public health strategies, including prevention, risk reduction, and health promotion. This empowers individuals who engage in behaviors that pose health risks, and their families, with the choice to lead healthier and self-directed lives," Dr. Letlape explained.
He also expressed hope that increased advocacy for tobacco harm reduction could stimulate productive discussions among stakeholders, including regulators and policymakers, ultimately leading to effective regulation and access to noncombustible product alternatives for adult smokers who are either unwilling or unable to quit.
Harm reduction strategies have been implemented worldwide as a practical and compassionate approach to address various issues, particularly in the context of substance use and other high-risk behaviours.
These strategies encompass a range of interventions, such as Needle Exchange Programs, supervised injection sites, condom distribution, PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), Vaping, E-Cigarettes, and supervised medication consumption.
Dr. Vivianne Manyeki highlighted that organizations practicing harm reduction offer a spectrum of strategies tailored to individuals on their terms, potentially serving as a pathway to additional health and social services, including prevention, treatment, and recovery services.
Dr. Tendai Mhizha of Integra Africa emphasized the vital role that journalists and media outlets should play in addressing misinformation and disinformation related to tobacco harm reduction discussions.
She stressed that the media is essential for accelerating the adoption of harm reduction strategies in health throughout the continent.
The proliferation of misinformation and disinformation due to the democratization of information requires stakeholders to be well-informed with current and pertinent information about the science behind harm reduction and the changes needed to progress towards a smoke-free world.
Advocates for tobacco harm reduction (THR) see it as a pivotal public health strategy that encourages adult smokers who cannot or do not wish to quit smoking entirely to transition to noncombustible product alternatives.
Dr. Tendai stated, "THR has the potential to bring about one of the greatest public health achievements of our time."
She emphasized that harm reduction is the most promising path forward, enabling regulators to provide adult smokers with information, choices, and support to reduce their reliance on smoking while also reducing underage use.
Dr. Michael Kariuki, a Public Health Specialist and Secretary General of the Harm Reduction Society in Kenya, echoed these sentiments, saying that several African countries have already implemented THR policies and programs.
For example, South Africa has legalized the sale of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, and Kenya is considering similar steps to regulate THR products and possibly legalize e-cigarettes.
Harmonizing the regulation of THR products in African public healthcare would represent a positive step towards reducing the health risks associated with tobacco use. It would also demonstrate a commitment on the part of African governments to protect their citizens from the dangers of tobacco smoke.