Small steps towards a big goal

UNAIDS

On 21 June, one of the largest non-profit organizations based in Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Humanitarian Action provides comprehensive medical and social assistance to people who use drugs, including services for the prevention of HIV, viral hepatitis and tuberculosis, following the principle of working with everyone, regardless of their lifestyle.

Humanitarian Action is the successor to Doctors of the World, which worked in the Russian Federation in the 1990s during an economic crisis that saw an increase in drug use and HIV and other infections.

Today, the main mission of Humanitarian Action is to improve the lives and health of people who use drugs, restore their dignity and raise public awareness about drug use. Its vision is, “A world in which people who use drugs do not die from an overdose, HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis or suicide, have equal rights and opportunities, are not stigmatized and discriminated against and do not experience self-stigma.”

A converted tourist bus, known as the Blue Bus owing to its colour, and a converted minibus, the Little Bus, allow Humanitarian Action to work as close as possible to where people who use drugs live and congregate. The organization offers personal protective equipment against bloodborne and sexually transmitted infections, including sterile syringes and needles, condoms, etc., and exchanges syringes.

People also can also get psychological services from Humanitarian Action. Legal advice on the restoration of documents, guardianship or problems with the law and medical and social support for HIV, hepatitis or tuberculosis diagnosis and treatment are also available.

“Not everyone is ready to change their life immediately. We help people learn to take responsibility for their health and change gradually, moving from one tiny victory to another,” said Alexey Lakhov, the Development Director of Humanitarian Action. “We are a kind of bridge between people who use drugs and various government and nongovernment services. It’s just that with us, it becomes easier to get such help thanks to partnerships with multiple social and medical services.”

The process of helping people who use drugs is based on the principle of taking small steps and is aimed at gradually introducing safer behaviours: do not start using drugs; if you have started, stop; if you use drugs, stop injecting them; if you do inject drugs, always use a sterile syringe; if it is not possible to use a sterile needle every time, at least never use someone else’s; if using someone else’s syringe, always disinfect it.

Some of Humanitarian Action’s employees are themselves former drug users, who share their stories with clients, helping those who wish to quit by referring them to appropriate services.

“We congratulate Humanitarian Action on its twentieth anniversary. We hope that by its thirtieth anniversary we will also be able to celebrate the end of AIDS and the elimination of all forms of stigma and discrimination against people affected by HIV,” said Alexander Goliusov, Director, a.i., of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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