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Crisis-hit Greece sets up first "drug consumption" centre

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece has set up its first "drug consumption" room to contain a surge of infectious diseases among drug addicts in the crisis-hit country, Greece's Organization Against Drugs, OKANA, said on Monday.

Following similar projects in Western Europe, Canada and Australia, the centre lets users inject drugs they bring themselves, under medical supervision, and has been visited by more than 200 addicts since it was set up in October.

"Demand is increasing day after day and we believe that very soon we may need more facilities in other parts of the city," said Sakis Papaconstantinou, the head of OKANA which runs the centre.

Greece has slashed health spending as part of austerity measures prescribed by international lenders in exchange for funds that have helped it stay afloat.

Many of its estimated 25,000 drug users are homeless and have no access to healthcare services in a country where unemployment has soared to over 27 percent, affecting mainly young people, in a six-year recession.

The number of HIV-infected drug users rose sharply at the height of the crisis in 2011-2012, according to OKANA, as needle-sharing led to higher exposure to infections - such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C. The drug consumption room is also aimed at reducing fatal overdoses.

Since 1986, more than 90 drug consumption rooms have been set up in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Luxembourg, Norway, Canada and Australia.

Representatives from the Council of Europe's drug policy network, meeting in Athens this week with drug policy experts from the Greek government and other European countries, called for immediate political action to mitigate the impact of drug abuse in austerity-hit countries.

"Let's not sacrifice drug treatment at the altar of austerity," said Panos Kakaviatos, spokesman of the Council of Europe, an inter-governmental body which plans to issue a call to all governments to provide resources for drug treatment.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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