14 July 2010
By Donald G Mcneil Jr
The practice, called flashblood or sometimes flushblood, is not common, but has been reported in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on the island of Zanzibar and in Mombasa, Kenya.
It puts users at the highest possible risk of contracting Aids and hepatitis. While most Aids transmission in Africa is by heterosexual sex, the use of heroin is growing in some cities, and experts are warning that flashblood–along with syringe–sharing and other dangerous habits–could fuel a new wave of Aids infections.
"Injecting yourself with fresh blood is a crazy practice – it’s the most effective way of infecting yourself with HIV," said Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which supports the researchers who discovered the practice. "Even though the number who do it is a relatively small group, they are vectors for HIV because they support themselves by sex work."
Sheryl McCurdy, a professor of public health at the University of Texas in Houston, first described the practice five years ago in a brief letter to The British Medical Journal and recently published a study of it in the journal Addiction.
"I don’t really know how widespread it is," said Dr McCurdy who is contacting other researchers working with addicts to get them to survey their subjects about it. "There’s pretty circular movement in East Africa."
Increasing use of heroin in parts of Africa has the potential to magnify the Aids epidemic.
In most East African countries like Tanzania and Kenya, only 3 to 8% of adults are infected with the Aids virus, far fewer than in southern Africa, where the rates reach 15 to 25%.
But among those who inject heroin, the rates are far higher. In Tanzania, about 42% of addicts are infected. The rate is even higher–64%–among female addicts, Dr McCurdy said, and since most support themselves through prostitution, they are in two high–risk groups.