How can funders support harm reduction?

Harm reduction is a key factor in slowing and stopping the HIV epidemic.

If you’re new to that term, here’s a rundown: Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Drug use will happen in society, regardless of laws: That’s the reality. The more we choose to ignore it, the more harm drug users face. It is perfectly possible to minimize harm for people who use drugs. Our choice is between doing nothing at all and letting drug use be an avenue for diseases to spread, or work to make drug use safe.

The recent report from Funders Concerned About AIDS found AIDS United to be the 7th largest funder for harm reduction (people who use drugs) in the world.

AIDS United has been in this work as a part of the organization’s core mission. The Harm Reduction Futures Fund is a centerpiece program, designed to strengthen the work of syringe services programs across the country. It also works to reduce disparities within health, psychosocial and socio-economics for people who use drugs. It also invests in evidence-based and community-driven approaches to prevent HIV and viral hepatitis transmission, to reduce injection-related injuries, increase overdose prevention and reversal efforts and connect people who use drugs to comprehensive prevention, treatment and support services. In the last round, AIDS United invested over $400,000 to organizations across the country.

In addition, AIDS United has a particular focus on the Midwest with programs such as our Midwest Harm Reduction Institute and our Midwest Syringe Service Program.

So, how can philanthropy actually tackle harm reduction?

HIV-related philanthropy has provided the most support for syringe services and harm reduction approaches. Yet in 2021, only 5% of total U.S. philanthropy was dedicated to people who use drugs. Governmental programs which offer support require complex reporting and often limit what can be done, not to mention the ever-shifting political winds that put programs and funding at risk.

There is a pressing need for greater funding for harm reduction services. People who use drugs and also have HIV have, on average, lower viral suppression rates. In turn, this means they can spread HIV to other drug users and sexual partners. To add another challenge, this population has a different challenge than traditional HIV outreach: The CDC estimates 64% of people who use drugs and also have HIV are homeless, 31% are incarcerated and 21% reported having no health insurance.

Stigma towards people who use drugs is also a major factor, as syringe service programs are often hampered by funding, legal issues, regulation and larger community stigma. If we cannot invest in harm reduction, we cannot end the HIV epidemic. The disease will continue to spread and create further hot spots.

Funding outside of government has the opportunity to provide unrestricted funding, can help with supply purchases to actually match on-the-ground demands, support services from people with lived experiences and make a major difference in improving the lives and conditions of some of the most marginalized people in society.

This is an opportunity for all funders to reassess where they stand on this issue, and work with AIDS United and community advocates to build a compassionate future.

The easiest way for philanthropy to get involved is to donate to our Harm Reduction Futures Fund, or contact us to find out what local syringe services are in your area.