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Putting It Simply: Harm Reduction Works

Thomas Bridgen is the Grants Lead for people who use drugs at the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) in London. We caught up with him as he was gearing up to attend the International Harm Reduction Conference in Porto, Portugal to learn more about how he became involved in harm reduction, a funder’s perspective on investing in harm reduction, and his motivations for doing this work.
Tell me about yourself and how you got involved in this work?

I’ve been working with the Foundation in London for around 5 years and previously worked in community grant making at the domestic level. Already having an interest in drug policy and the health and social implications of the war on drugs on people around the world - and having directly managed several of our grants aimed at supporting people who use drugs - as part of the integration between EJAF UK and US, I have taken on the role of leading our programmes for people who use drugs globally. I’m also excited to now be working more closely with partners in the US and look forward to meeting more communities doing great work on the ground.

You’re gearing up to go to Portugal for the International Harm Reduction Conference. What are you looking forward to about the conference?

It’ll be a great opportunity to hear about the amazing work being done to prevent HIV among people who use drugs around the world and to find out about innovative ways in which communities are being reached with lifesaving services. I’m looking forward to discussions on how we provide targeted, appropriate services for women who use drugs and how to respond to changing trends in drug use globally, as well as joining conversations about how we can address stigma and discrimination towards people who use drugs, which prevents many from accessing the HIV services that they need. The Elton John AIDS Foundation will also be hosting an event with AIDS United to discuss the huge gap in funding for harm reduction and how we need to mobilize more resources to prevent new transmissions among this population.

EJAF is a major supporter of the Syringe Access Fund and harm reduction more broadly. Why do you think it’s so critical to prioritize harm reduction in the fight against HIV?

People who use drugs are 22 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population, but so often they are left behind in prevention efforts. While there is a gradual reduction in new HIV transmissions more broadly, among this population they are increasing, with prevalence of injection drug use also on the rise in some areas of the US. Because communities around the world are heavily criminalized and experience higher levels of stigma and discrimination, many don’t come forward to receive services. We therefore need to put people who use drugs at the forefront of the HIV response and meet them wherever they are. And put simply, harm reduction works. We know that by providing clean needles and syringes, offering HIV testing and referring people to substitution programmes like methadone, a person’s risk of acquiring or passing on HIV decreases dramatically.

What would you say to other funders who are hesitant to support harm reduction?

As a Foundation that has provided support for people who use drugs for a long time, we have seen the huge health benefits of funding harm reduction, not only for individuals, but for the wider community as well. The science is there and we know that harm reduction interventions are not only highly effective, but also cheap and easy to provide. We know drug use will always exist around the world, but we also know that other approaches such as doubling down on punishment for people who use drugs cause immense harms. More than anything as a Foundation committed to ending AIDS, we must ensure that we provide communities with the tools to keep themselves and others safe. For other funders who are interested in improving health, I would say that harm reduction is one of the most effective ways of doing this.

How do you stay motivated in your work?

I spend a lot of time with partners in various countries including Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam and Myanmar and am always blown away by the commitment of outreach workers and peers who often operate in heavily criminalized contexts. Seeing the dedication to the health and human rights of communities is incredible and I want to say a big thank you to all those working on the frontline of harm reduction around the world.

Thank you Tom!

Posted By: Sarah Hashmall, Communications Manager - Tuesday, April 30, 2019

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