Health work with drug users


Working within a network

by Graciela Radulich.

El Retoño is a Christian organisation which focuses on working with drug users within the poorer areas of the capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires. This organisation was begun in 1985 in order to offer complete rehabilitation (physical, psychiatric, social and spiritual) to male drug users who came voluntarily to ask for help.

Back in 1990, we realised that most of the drug users who came to us were affected by HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B or C. Most of them managed to overcome their addiction and began a new life. However, their health problems due to HIV/AIDS remained. El Retoño provided support and health advice until the end of their lives.

The situation of HIV infection among drug users in Argentina has not improved. People pass on infection through the sharing of needles, unsafe sexual behaviour, childbirth or breastfeeding. In Argentina, people injecting drugs are still the group at highest risk of HIV (41%). The unsafe sexual behaviour of drug users who don’t use needles to take drugs further increases this figure. In addition, the use of drugs has increased dramatically, especially among the poor.

Despite all this, and in contrast to what happens in ‘First World’ countries, the government does not take any action to help prevent or improve this situation. As Christians, faced with such a difficult situation, we began questioning what our response should be. Should we just wait for drug users to come to our rehabilitation centre, totally abandoning those who had still not taken the decision to give up their drug-taking? Would not ignoring such people mean an increase in the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases? If our society has condemned and isolated drug users should we expect responsible behaviour from them?

Our response, in 1998, was to begin the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Health Promotion Programme among drug users within the poorer areas. This programme was one of the first of its kind in the country, working to reduce the damage caused by drug abuse. It was one of the first in Argentina to combine this work with openly Christian vision and practice.

The project was created with the following aims:

  • to establish contact with as many drug users as possible from poor areas who had no contact at all with social or health institutions
  • to reduce the risk of transmitting infections both among active drug users and those who didn’t use drugs
  • to create contacts between drug users and health organisations to encourage early diagnosis and treatment for illnesses
  • to help drug users to prevent the spread of infection with their partners
  • to accompany drug users on their start to recovery.

The new programme did not change the original El Retoño mission. Our main goal remains that of helping as many people as possible to learn to live without drugs, within a Christian life project.

Creating networks

From the beginning we tried to create opportunities for participation by community members to ensure efficient and lasting solutions to these problems.

For this purpose, we worked on creating two types of network. The first was on a small scale within the community to support and help drug users. We asked for support from families, drug users, ex drug users and Christian leaders, to work together to understand their local situation, to produce information and hold community workshops on how to prevent drug use and to improve health treatment and rehabilitation for drug users.

The second type of network was on a larger scale. Its purpose was to make society in general much more aware of the urgent need to tackle the growth in drug abuse, and the increase in illnesses associated with drug use. We worked long and hard on setting up meetings for government employees, church and community leaders and members of social organisations, both to increase their awareness of these problems and to co-ordinate work on prevention and support for drug users.

There have been many results from this action and they continue to increase. For example, the Argentinian Network for Damage Reduction was founded. It brings together many social organisations, scientific associations and government members. El Retoño also combined with a number of scientific and health research organisations to carry out the first extended study of the rate of HIV and hepatitis infection among drug users within Argentina who use needles. This study should help plan effective intervention programmes in the future.

In all these activities, El Retoño tries to show clearly the values and ethics of the gospel of Jesus Christ, carrying ‘the voice of those without a voice’ to all the different levels within which we work.

Graciela Radulich is the Co-ordinator of El Retoño (New Growth), a Tearfund partner in Argentina. Her address is El Retoño, H Wineberg 3450, (1636) La Lucila, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Some lessons learned

  • Sharing our work, experience and knowledge with others through networking brought us enormous benefits in enriching and improving our own work.
  • Organisational networks are a valuable way of influencing and putting pressure on governments to make policies to protect vulnerable members of society.
  • Working with non-Christian people and organisations provides an opportunity to share our faith and the solutions that the Gospel provides for our suffering world.