Three health workers providing life-saving interventions approved by the Gauteng Department of Health were arrested at 12h00 on Tuesday the 17th of January for handing out 20ml bottles of sterile water.
According to the arresting officer, Warrant Officer (W/O) Mokholo, officials at the Gauteng Department of Health and the Medicines Control Council it was confirmed that the provision of sterile water is a criminal offence. The water was being given out as part of the Step-Up Project, an HIV prevention programme aimed at people who inject drugs. The project is run by OUT Well-being in Tshwane and is supported by the Gauteng Department of Health and the University of Pretoria.
Despite providing documentation and even though the National Department of Health officials, senior police officers and government officials intervened, the University of Pretoria social worker and two OUT staff members were charged with “Contravention of Section 22A of the Medicines and Related Substance Act 1965” and “Distribution of medical instruments to be used for illegal purposes”.
Derick Louw, Urell Olivier and Sukholuhle Tshuma, were released on bail of R1000 each more than twelve hours after their arrest when Pretoria’s Chief Public Prosecutor personally visited the Pretoria Central charge office in the early hours of Thursday morning to facilitate their release. The three were due to appear in the Pretoria Magistrates Court but the case was removed from the role.
“This is not the first time that staff and service beneficiaries have faced police harassment.” Said Urell Olivier, one of the detainees. “Our service users are vulnerable and are not treated with any dignity. Many of them have died on our city streets.”
The Step-Up Project Coordinator, Nelson Medeiros explained: “The exclusion, stigma and lack of services for people who inject drugs increases their disease burden. The Step-Up Project operates according to international best practice and guidelines endorsed by the Department of Health and the South African National AIDS Council.”
The World Health Organisation and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report that similar programmes have been shown to reduce mortality, the incidence of HIV and hepatitis C and illicit drug use; increase referrals and access to treatment programmes, health and social services; reduce strain on the public health care system and also reduce petty crime and antisocial behaviour to the benefit of the broader community.
“Our approach focuses on the individual’s health needs first without the usual condemnation or judgement. As a community based organisation all staff are peers drawn from the communities we serve. This is critical to our project’s success and helps us reach people where they are at. We work with our service users, local government and other organisations to create an environment that supports the wellness of everyone, including people who inject drugs,” Mr Medeiros continued.
“OUT Well-being are appreciative of the support received from government agencies as this event unfolded, but improved communication between departments and clear policy guidelines must be established to prevent similar unnecessary incidents in the future.”