Drug prevention centres warn EU directive could spread infectious diseases among drug users

Up to 30,000 people in this country of ten million are believed to be addicted to hard drugs. Until recently, drop-in centres in the Czech Republic tested drug users for dangerous diseases and infections. But that service was discontinued last year and it is now feared that several thousand drug addicts are walking around with an infectious disease they do not even know they have.

To be in accordance with an EU directive, a new law came into effect last year limiting the ways in which medical tests for blood borne diseases and infections can be conducted. Only hospitals or doctors can test patients, and distributors of the so-called rapid tests used at drug centres have to be EU certified. In recent years in the Czech Republic, drop-in centres and reach-out programmes used a medical test from the United States offered by a Czech supplier. But now that supplier says it would be too costly to acquire a European certificate.

This is a catastrophe, says Dr. Viktor Mravcik, the head of the National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which estimates that at least one third of the country's drug addicts are infected with hepatitis C.

"We have simply lost our monitoring possibilities. In the last years I was able to tell you the number of tests that were done and the results in terms of prevalence. For example, around 20 percent of those tested were positive for hepatitis C. Now I cannot provide you with the data for 2006, or if so then just from a very small sample."

Since few drug users would go to a hospital to be tested, only those help centres that work together with doctors are able to offer medical examinations. As a result, only a few dozen drug addicts were tested for hepatitis last year compared to almost 2,000 in previous years. Dr Mravcik hopes that one of three potential solutions to the problem will soon bear fruit:

"The first one is to involve health facilities in order to strengthen the cooperation between public health and drug services. The second option is to wait for a test that will be certified, possibly at the end of the year as I have been informed by the Czech distributor. The third one is that every country has to integrate EU law with national law but there are exceptions possible and it is up to every country to make the conditions for this exception."