Vietnam has launched a methadone drug substitution programme to help injecting heroin users beat the addiction and reduce the spread of HIV/Aids, the United Nations said Monday.

Two new methadone clinics in the northern port city of Hai Phong, a heroin and Aids hotspot, will treat 700 users with the substitute drug from now until December, said the United Nations mission in a statement.

The UN congratulated Vietnam and said it was pleased to work with the country on "effective harm reduction approaches ensuring a comprehensive response to HIV in Vietnam," said UNAIDS country chief Eamonn Murphy.

Methadone substitution programmes reduce illegal drug use, crime, mortality and the spread of HIV/Aids and hepatitis C, said the UN statement.

Methadone clinics are also due to open by May in Vietnam's largest urban centre, HCM City, which has the highest infection rates in an HIV epidemic driven in Vietnam by injecting drug users sharing needles.

Almost 300,000 Vietnamese are believed to be living with HIV.

Intravenous drug users, commercial sex workers and homosexual men still make up the largest number of infected people here, but health experts warn that the virus is now spreading fast into the wider population of 86 million.

Heroin, most of it from the 'Golden Triangle' countries of Burma and Laos, is the most popular illegal drug in Vietnam, UN experts say.

Vietnam has a centuries-old history of opium use, and cultivation was vastly expanded under French colonial rule. During the Vietnam war, heroin flows from the Golden Triangle rose sharply, to US troops and Western markets.

The post-war communist government mostly eradicated large-scale opium cultivation and in 2004 estimated that little more than 30 hectares of poppy fields remained, mostly grown by remote and poor ethnic minorities.

However, Vietnam's proximity to Burma and Laos-the second and third largest opium producers after Afghanistan-and its porous borders and long coastline have made it a major transit country, say UN experts.

Domestic drug abuse in Vietnam has risen sharply since the 1990s, especially in the cities, where "heroin continues to be the preferred drug among younger drug abusers," according to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime Control.

Opium smoking has long given way to heroin smoking and increasingly injection, which now causes about 60% of Vietnam's known HIV infections.

In the last two months of 2007, Vietnamese courts sentenced at least 43 people to death and jailed scores more in several group trials against heroin smuggling syndicates, often extended family and clan networks.

Agence France Presse - April 30, 2008