April 2021

Jude Byrne: tireless advocate for people who use drugs

“Warrior of activism”, “extraordinary woman”, “hero”, “inspiration”: Jude Byrne’s death in March triggered an immediate outpouring of tributes for one of the global community of drug users’ greatest advocates.

Throughout Australia and the world, Jude’s peers honoured a “drug-using woman, mother and grandmother” revered for her “wisdom, determination and insight”, a person whose “joy was infectious and passion unwavering” and who “fought throughout her life for fundamental human rights” and “will remain unforgettable to so many”.

On March 2, Jude wrote in an online message: “A bullet I couldn’t dodge. A hernia to terminal cancer is a jump. I was too slow.”

Three days later, on the evening of March 5, she passed away in a Canberra hospital with her two surviving siblings, elder sister Jo-Anne and younger brother Guy; daughters Autumn and Imogen; son Myles; and partner Geoffrey by her bedside.

Many people learned of the loss through a statement made early the following morning by Melanie Walker, CEO of the Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), an organisation Jude co-founded and for which she worked as National Project Coordinator.

“Jude was still talking to people about work and shaping the future from her hospital bed right up until the end – on the Thursday before she passed away on the Friday night – such was her commitment to the work she was leading and AIVL,” Melanie tells The Bulletin.

“As a strategically minded woman she was always very attentive to succession planning in terms of AIVL and the sector – that was part of the strength of her mentorship role.”

Melanie says while not even Jude herself realised the extent of her illness – “We all thought it was hernia until six weeks before her passing” – Jude had “done a lot of work for years assisting up-and-comers with a view to ensuring the longevity of her projects and sustainability of the drug user movement’s contributions to policy and programs going forward”.

“Jude also established the national peer network within AIVL that provides a forum for peer workers across the member organisations to get together to talk about their work, to work on various workforce development initiatives and to provide input to researchers and policy makers direct from the coalface.

“All of the people who were mentored and influenced by Jude’s work – so many who’ve gone on to have integral roles in the sector – will be able to carry that on into the future.”

Melanie says Jude’s involvement in establishing AIVL as a national peer-based drug user organisation was “one of the major achievements in her life and career”.

“She was also integral in setting up the International Network of People Who Use Drugs, INPUD, and she was on innumerable boards and reference groups throughout the years, including the board of the International Network of Hepatitis and Substance Users, INHSU. She recently stepped down from the board of the NSW Users and AIDS Association, NUAA, where she had assisted in a time of transition.

“Jude was a Goliath in creating organisations and structures that carry forward the views and needs of people who use drugs nationally and internationally, not just in the drug user movement but also across the research, policy and development, and program development spaces.

“Through it all she was quite an understated woman in how she communicated this with her family so Jude’s children are only now getting to know a lot more about her work. It’s lovely for them to see how highly regarded she was.”

After a career of advocacy for others, Jude’s final days were made more comfortable thanks in part to the intervention of the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation & Advocacy (CAHMA) and AIVL, which collaborated to have her granted access to pain medication. “It is during sickness and illness that people who use drugs really see the sharp end of prohibitionist discrimination,” CAHMA Manager Chris Gough says. “We were proud to be able to swing into action and ensure Jude had sufficient pain relief to ensure her human rights when she became seriously ill.”

Jude was known for her love of poppy flowers.

Childhood on the move

The third of six children of Tom and Aileen Byrne – a railway worker-turned-WWII airman and a nurse, from North East Victoria – Jude was born in Melbourne on August 7, 1957.

As a baby she moved with her family to the Hawkesbury Valley near Sydney when her father was transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base at Richmond. It was the first in a series of RAAF relocations – Canberra and then Darwin followed before the Byrnes eventually settled back in the capital, where Jude attended Australian National University.

Inspired by her mother, Jude took up nursing at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. This interest in healthcare grew into a lifelong commitment to outreach, harm reduction, evidence-based drug policy and peer education.

Making a difference

In a family eulogy during Jude’s funeral, her brother Guy recalled: “Around the time of the AIDS epidemic, Jude began her advocacy for drug users and other vulnerable groups.”

Drawing on her own lived experience as a person who injected drugs – and would continue doing so for the rest of her life – Jude first became involved in hepatitis C virus (hep C) and drug use issues in 1989.

In the late 1990s she was the first ongoing staff member employed by AIVL, heading up its national hep C program. Jude became a force in the fight to eliminate hep C among people who inject drugs, through her work both at AIVL and with the World Health Organization (WHO) and, more recently, with INHSU and other organisations.

Jude was the first peer representative appointed to the Australian National Council on Drugs, the Prime Minister’s advisory committee on drug policy during the Howard era.

She authored many papers and in 2006 co-wrote The Safer Injecting Handbook (published by the Australian Drug Foundation) with Andrew Preston. She was a frequent speaker at conferences, seminars, forums and workshops in Australia and overseas, including in her role as chair of INPUD.

In 2011, at the Harm Reduction International (HRI) conference in Lebanon, Jude was presented with the International Rolleston Award for her “outstanding contribution to harm reduction at an international level”.

HRI Executive Director Naomi Burke-Shyne and Conference Co-managers Maddie and Lucy O’Hare remember Jude as a “courageous and inspirational harm reduction leader – a brave pioneer and fierce advocate for the rights of people who use drugs”.

I am completely addicted to changing drug laws and the way we illegal drug users are reported on and seen by the wider community.

Jude Byrne (1957–2021)

Championing treatment for all

Having received hep C interferon ribavirin therapy herself, Jude saw the benefits of having treatment made available to all Australians.

She worked closely with Professor Margaret Hellard at Burnet Institute on this initiative.

“For the sector, losing Jude is a real blow,” Margaret says. “People will come through, but Jude played an immensely important role.

“The nature of her personality meant she was able to find a way to work with everybody – it was a great strength of hers. Not everyone has that ability.

“She was incredibly valuable as a colleague and friend and guide. I could pick up the phone and ask her advice about doing something in a way that was right for the community and how we might frame it going forward to engage with people. We could always have that conversation about getting the balance right.”

Margaret says although the two had known each other since the early 2000s, her relationship with Jude had deepened in the past decade.

“I began to know her well when we were on a WHO expert advisory group together, and then in 2014, around the time of the UNAIDS International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, I was advocating for treatment for everybody for hep C.

“Not everyone was agreeing with me – most people were saying ‘Medication’s too expensive’ and there was concern that governments would then take money away from harm reduction, concern about blowing budgets. People were initially sceptical, because it came out at $1,000 a pill so it would be $100,000 or more to cure one patient of hep C, but we knew from other work that it could actually be much cheaper.

“Jude was open to those discussions. Early on, we needed to speak with government and we needed community to back us up so we could move the conversation along in a really constructive partnership approach.

“This was how we were able to say that treatment absolutely should be made available to people who were injecting drugs so that they would be able to break the chain of infection and not accidentally pass it on to others. It was Jude from AIVL and Helen Tyrrell from Hepatitis Australia and others who took the lead.”

Jude’s groundbreaking work in advocacy and research on behalf of people who use drugs, and the professional relationships she fostered, ensure her influence will continue to be felt for decades to come.

– Rosalea Ryan

As part of the Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League’s (AIVL) work on ageing among people who use drugs, Jude Byrne was interviewed for a series of podcasts which is due to be released soon and will appear on the AIVL website.

“We’ll be hearing Jude’s voice and getting the benefit of her wisdom even beyond her passing,” AIVL CEO Melanie Walker says. “People will continue to learn from her work and her insight – we haven’t had the last word from Jude just yet.”