29 May 2015

The death metal drummer saving Romania’s addicts from HIV

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Addicts in Bucharest shoot up as many as 30 times a day. Paraic O’Brien went to meet the death metal drummer who is trying to stem Romania’s drugs and HIV epidemic.

Death metal is the sound track to the “big society” in Bucharest.

Paraic O’Brien went to the Romanian capital to meet Mikhai Tanasescu, a drummer who is also part of a team of young health workers giving out clean needles to addicts and condoms to prostitutes, trying to stem an HIV tidal wave. Mikhai says drumming and performing saved him from the sort of life lived by the addicts he now helps.

The World Bank’s global Aids programme is warning that a raft of countries in eastern Europe are on the brink of a new HIV epidemic, driven by cheaper synthetic heroin alternatives. Mikhai reckons that some addicts, using these “legal highs”, shoot up 30 times a day. And that means the likelihood of people being infected with HIV goes through the roof.

Read more: Beneath the streets of Bucharest, a living hell

Among drug users being supplied with clean needles are the addicts who live in the tunnels under Bucharest – as well as a young couple who are forced to bring their small baby to the night-time needle bank. Team leader Dan Popescu says “harm reduction” is all about time. “The first step is to shoot less often,” he tells Paraic O’Brien.

It is the perfect storm for drug users across Europe: rocketing levels of legal high injection, coupled with a tightening of the purse strings on health budgets. The political chattering classes are debating over austerity – while people in Bucharest are dying over it. Romania has tried but struggled to plug the funding gap.

So why should people in the UK care about a possible public health crisis in a poor corner of Bucharest? Take the example of Ramona. She has two children in Bucharest, one in Britain. She spends part of her time as a sex worker in Tottenham and Ilford, suburbs of London. In our connected world, HIV “harm reduction” is connected too.

Read more: Is death the only escape from life in Romania's tunnels?

If you would like to donate to ARAS, the Romanian Aids charity featured in Paraic O’Brien’s film, click here.