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Fighting an Epidemic in Russia from 3,000 Miles Away

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© Guy Martin/Panos for the Open Society Foundations

Russia is home to the world’s fastest-growing HIV epidemic. Driven by injection drug use, it is now becoming generalized. If you use injection drugs in Russia, you likely have HIV, hepatitis C, and more often than not, tuberculosis.

Although the Russian constitution grants the right to free access to health services in government facilities, it does not provide effective care to those who have these multiple infections. And it bans opioid substitution therapy—the most effective opiate addiction treatment.

In many ways, the story of Max, who you meet in this video, is typical of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who use drugs. As an intravenous drug user, he contracted HIV and hepatitis C.

But when Max was denied testing and treatment for his hepatitis C, he did something no Russian who uses drugs had done before—Max turned to the justice system.

Faced with the daunting task of taking on his region’s health system in court, Max used the Internet for help. He contacted the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Through online sessions with a lawyer who was more than 3,000 miles away, Max crafted his legal arguments and strategy.

Representing himself, Max sued the regional hospital in Tver that denied him testing, and won his case on appeal. The court ordered testing and treatment for him.

Max’s victory inspired him to help others confront the injustices they experience in health services. He co-founded a project at the Andrey Rylkov Foundation in which street outreach workers provide legal consultations for people who use drugs alongside offerings of clean needles and food.

In his outreach work, Max relies on the website—a unique online resource that offers advice about ever-changing Russian drug laws to drug users, their friends, and their families. The site wants to correct a widespread lack of understanding of drug laws common not only among people who use drugs and the general population, but also law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges.

In a vast country like Russia, where accessing a lawyer is not always practical or possible, Hand-help is only a click away, offering accurate and up-to-date advice and information.

Armed with an innovative resource like Hand-help, and a conviction that Russians who use drugs should be treated as people worthy of respect, Max wants others to recognize their power.

“The most important thing,” Max says, “is strength in your own life—to fight for help, to stand up for something.”

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, and received support from the Open Society Foundations.

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