34 year old Athmani Ezzad is a recovering heroin addict. After finishing primary education in 1997 in Kisumu County, Athmani dropped out of school due to peer influence and drug abuse behaviours he had picked up from his friends in his final years in primary school.
Efforts by his parents to take him back to school were futile. So, they decided to take him to Tanzania to live with his aunt. In Tanzania he joined his uncle in working for a transport company where he would later meet his girlfriend who introduced him to heroin.
“My first time to see and use heroin was with my girlfriend. I met her one evening crushing and heating some powder and she told me it was ‘a feel good drug’ and was better than the cigarettes I smoked. To please her, I tried some and started accompanying her to buying and using it. I later noticed that I could not spend a day without using heroin. I was hooked” Recalls Athmani
A few months later his girlfriend died due to heroin overdose. In fear of arrest and hostility from the community, Athmani relocated to another town where he got another job and started a family. He secretly continued using heroin, but it was not long before his wife discovered his habit.
A period of marital problems ensued, until one day, she left Athmani. She was fed-up with his addiction. To sustain his heroin addiction, he would sell their household goods. He was always lying and their life had become highly unstable and difficult. Athmani was always involved in petty crimes, which led him to lose his job.
He would be arrested and released several times, but one time he was caught stealing from the public and after surviving a beating from the crowd, where he was almost lynched, Athmani decided to flee from Tanzania and go back to his home in Kisumu County.
In 2014, he reunited with his family and childhood friends, and was lucky to get a job but could not control his addiction. He would soon get in trouble with his employer, friends and family for his stealing habits. He could not keep his job. His friends could not stand him. And eventually, he was chased from home.
“My family said I was a bother and they could not stand my stealing habits, I had duped all my friends and they would not entertain me anymore. They threatened to beat me up and I fled to a different location where I lived in the streets with other addicts.”
It is while in the streets, that Athmani met an old friend who was a recovering drug addict and a peer educator working for LVCT Health STEPS (Support Towards Expanded Prevention Services for key and priority populations) project. Started in October 2016 and funded by PEPFAR through CDC Kenya, the STEPS project targets key populations including people who inject drugs (PWIDs) with HIV prevention services. It is anchored on three combination prevention interventions: Behavioural, Biomedical and Structural interventions.
“When my friend approached me I was at my lowest moment in life and was desperate for change. I accompanied him to the Manyatta facility, where I was put through an induction process and was soon enrolled in the project.” Said Athmani
LVCT Health runs a PWID drop in center in Kisumu. The PWID programme uses a peer led strategy that offers HIV prevention services to PWIDs through harm reduction approaches; provision of needles and syringes, HIV prevention services; HIV testing and condoms distribution, screening for STIs, Hepatitis B & C and preparation for Medically Assisted Therapy (MAT). PWIDs are prepared for MAT induction at the DICE and subsequently linked to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga teaching and referral hospital for MAT. LVCT Health conducts a 7 day inception sessions to the PWIDs, which run through a number of counselling sessions, including group and family therapy to prepare the addicts on the journey of recovery.
After being enrolled in the project and receiving induction sessions, Athmani was determined to quit heroin. He therefore actively participated in the support groups in the project. He was committed and a good adherer to treatment. In a few months, he was made a peer educator and mobiliser. He has since managed to refer 60 PWIDs into the project for HIV services. Since he has been clean, his family welcomed him back and are supporting him through the treatment process.
According to NASCOP, there are more than 23,000 PWIDs in Kenya. 92% of those are heroin addicts and 8 % are addicted to other opiates, PWIDs have an 18% HIV prevalence, making them a priority population in reducing new HIV infections.
LVCT Health works with PWIDs in 5 Counties in Kenya: Kisumu, Kiambu, Migori, Kisii and Nairobi, through Drop in centres (DiCEs). The project provides safe spaces where the PWIDs go through counselling and are referred for Methadone uptake in government health facilities. The project aims to improve their quality of life and reintegrate them back to their families and the society.
In February, Athmani finished one year on Methadone treatment. He is one of the 1,700 recovering drug addicts on the HIV prevention programme by LVCT Health in Kenya.
As one of the leading peer educators in Kisumu, he remains optimistic that he will fully recover and get back to a normal life. His dream is to be employed as a driver and re-unite with his wife and children.
By Alfred Itunga