Kerstin Tunving was chief physician at the drug-dependence unit at Lund and a member of the board of Läkare mot AIDS (doctors against AIDS) from 1989–1993. For many years she was an influential polemicist on the subject of drug-dependency care and also became known for her role in setting up the first Swedish needle-exchange programme, in Lund, during the 1980s.
Kerstin Tunving was born in Kroppa, Värmland in 1930. She grew up at the Storfors public school where her father, Arvid Persson, taught. Her mother, Edith Persson, was a housewife. The family lived at the school until the mid-1940s at which point her father was appointed head-teacher in Osby. When Kerstin Tunving was 19 years old she began to study medicine at Lund university. She was the sole woman out of 17 students registered on the surgical medicine course during the spring term of 1954. That same year she married Lars Helge Tunving, who had gained a licentiate in literature and was a teacher. Before gaining her medical licentiate in 1959 Kerstin Tunving had also completed two terms worth of psychiatry courses with Professor Erik Essen-Möller. In addition, she had become a mother, giving birth to her first daughter, Katarina, in 1957. Her second daughter, Anna, was born in 1961.
A drug-dependence unit at which Kerstin Tunving was appointed chief physician opened at the St Lars hospital in 1970. This unit, comprising 18 spaces, featured a generous admission policy. During the 1970s almost every intravenous-drug addict in the region was housed at the unit at some point. Kerstin Tunving, in collaboration with her colleagues, published books on the care that particular unit offered, as well as on drug-dependence care in general.
In addition to being a much-loved and very active doctor at the St Lars hospital Kerstin Tunving was also chair of Föreningen Skånegårdar (Scanian farms association). This was an independent association, tied to the county council’s drug-dependence agency in Lund, in which seven farms had come together to offer care in an agricultural environment. One of these farms was Ljungstorps gård at which Kerstin Tunsving served as head physician. A maximum number of five patients were received at the farm at any one time. The majority of these patients had previously been admitted to the St Lars hospital drug-dependence unit and then voluntarily applied to go to the farm. The patients, who were referred to as guests, helped out with most chores: in addition to agricultural tasks they also undertook roles such as grocery shopping, cleaning, and food preparation. Kerstin Tunving regularly visited the various farms in order to check up on the patients.
Further to her work at the drug-dependence clinic Kerstin Tunving was also a member of the Swedish national health board’s scientific council for drug-dependency care as well as a board member of Föreningen Läkare mot AIDS. Kerstin Tunving also wrote several academic works and made important contributions to the field of narcotics abuse, including the reference work Droger A-Ö and two books on hash and cocaine, respectively, all three of these co-authored with Thomas Nordegren. Kerstin Tunving also travelled throughout Sweden giving talks at schools and universities. She gained her Ph.D and became an M.D. in 1986, having written a thesis entitled Careers in Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. Clinical and Epidemiological studies. In 1987 Kerstin Tunving became a docent in social psychiatry.
Kerstin Tunving has been described as a strong person with moral courage. She chose to follow her own path and was, in many ways, ahead of her time. Her colleagues have described her as merciful and someone able to connect well with both her patients and her staff. Kerstin Tunving was attentive to her patients’ needs. When HIV and AIDS began to spread amongst intravenous drug abusers in Sweden she set up a needle-exchange programme at the infectious diseases clinic at the Lund hospital in 1986. The World Health Organisation later described this as one of the best of its kind in the world as well as the best-documented programme. Primarily this was an attempt to stop the spread of HIV. It also sought to draw those drug addicts who needed needles and cannulas into care and treatment. By the autumn of 1988 the needle-exchange programme in Lund had been visited by approximately 800 drug addicts on 4,000 occasions. Around this time Kerstin Tunving began to champion the provision of methadone treatment in Lund. The Swedish national health board decided in 1988 to initiate such a programme in that city two years later.
The needle-exchange and methadone programmes did not fit in with the official Swedish narcotics policy and Kerstin Tunving was criticised right up until the end for fighting for humane action and reaching out to the most vulnerable in society. With hindsight the wisdom of her ways is clear: whilst intravenous drug-users in southern Sweden largely escaped AIDS hundreds of Swedish addicts in Stockholm were infected and developed the illness completely unnecessarily. It was only 20 years after the programme had started that the Swedish parliament recognised the value of the needle-exchange programme. The trial period was finally over.
Kerstin Tunving died on 5 February 1994 as the result of an accident. She is buried at Brunnby cemetery just outside of Arild in Scania.