Anton Basenko  attending the UN General Assembly High-level Meeting on Tuberculosis, 2018

Replacing Hate with Harm Reduction

Anton Basenko is 41 years old, with a master’s degree in international economy, a wife, and a young son. For 11 years he was an injection drug user living on the streets and became HIV and Hep C positive. A harm reduction program set him on a new path. He shared his experiences in this personal perspective for Global Health NOW, part of the Voices in HIV/AIDS Activism series.

People are not born in activism. I think I just didn't have a choice.

I come from a good family; both of my parents are public servants. I became a DJ in the mid-1990s. I thought, if you are a DJ, you should be involved in drugs. For 10 years I tried and tried to quit. I went down to the bottom. No work. There was a period when my parents wouldn't let me in to their apartment and I lived on the streets in a country where drug users are automatically considered to be criminal. 

And finally, one day in 2004 I became one of the first 30 substitution-therapy patients in Ukraine, thru a Global Fund program, and received needles and syringes. I met doctors and social workers and NGO workers who were not judging me. My condition stabilized and I had an opportunity to think about my health. 

One day, my doctor asked me to speak at a public hearing at the Ministry of Health about whether to support substitution therapy. The experience inspired me to be an activist. I started to work as a peer counselor in an NGO, and eventually I went to work for the Alliance for Public Health. I went from grassroots harm reduction to national level programs and now international—the European AIDS Treatment Group (a patient-led NGO) in Brussels—and I work on quality of life issues for people living with HIV. I’m also a member of the Global Fund Advocates Network.

We need to reduce the level of hatred and anger and discrimination toward people who use drugs and people dealing with HIV, and to provide easy, low-threshold access to harm reduction tools. We have to reach the people who are usually left behind.

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Anton Basenko representing Ukraine at the UN General Assembly High-level Meeting on Tuberculosis in 2018, New York, New York.