Pubdate: Thu, 25 Sep 2003
Source: Smithers Interior News (CN BC)
Copyright: 2003, BC Newspaper Group
Author: Larissa Ardis
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Smithers will soon be home to a second needle exchange site, if a proposal
under discussion by service providers and local health professionals becomes a

The facility, which could open as early as November, would operate out of
Positive Living North West's First Avenue office and complement the needle
exchange that has operated in the Smithers Public Health Unit since 1994.

It would provide injection-drug users with a safe needle-disposal service and
free, clean needles, and offer referrals to addictions counselling.

According to Deb Schmitz, Positive Living's executive director, evidence
suggests local demand strongly warrants a second exchange.

Although the Health Unit's exchange officially operates only two hours per
week, it exchanged 8,800 needles in 2002: more than double the amount exchanged
in 2001.

The second exchange would significantly extend access for users, as Positive
Living could offer exchange services throughout the office's working hours and
possibly one or more evenings per week.

Schmitz says a second site would also offer more opportunities for users to
make contact with the health system, and for researchers to collect
non-identifying information about the drug-using community to more effectively
shape preventative education programs.

Kathy Davidson, the public health nurse who operates Smithers' needle exchange,
believes a second exchange at Positive Living might eliminate a barrier
experienced by some drug-users about using the Health Unit's service: fear of
going to a needle exchange in the building which houses probation officers and
the courts.

Both Davidson and Schmitz say more accessible needle exchange services would
benefit the community, as educated local injection drug-users learn the
importance of disposing needles safely and preventing the transmission of
strongly associated conditions such as HIV and Hepatitis A, B and C between
users and to the non-drug using population.

And, Schmitz points out, users who learn to take better care of these chronic
health conditions ultimately cost the public health system less. The new
service would incur few new costs beyond initial training for Positive Living's
existing staff, and supplies would be provided by the Health Unit.

Schmitz says the proposal has met with favourable responses from local
physicians, non-profit agencies, the Friendship Centre, the RCMP, and the
places addicts sometimes turn to for needles when the Health Unit's exchange
isn't open: the hospital emergency department and local pharmacies.

She acknowledges work remains to be done to garner broader community support
for the proposal, particularly from downtown businesses who may harbour
concerns that more needles, or users, will show up in alleyways.

"We're confident we can address their concerns," declares Schmitz, promising
face-to-face meetings with community members, and an upcoming open house at
Positive Living.

Schmitz and Davidson encounter a variety of opinions about harm-reduction
programs - including the argument that injection-drug users, who are engaging
in illegal behaviour, shouldn't be given free needles while law-abiding
diabetics have to pay for theirs. "We give needles to anyone, and there are
diabetics who use our service," says Davidson.

Schmitz has also heard critics' claim that drug addicts shouldn't get treatment
at all because they're already on a self-destructive, possibly fatal path.

"That's a really scary, slippery place to go," she says. "We're all going to
die. Do we not provide care to anyone?"

Such "cruel, inhumane" reasoning, observes Schmitz, could well be extended to
anyone who risks diabetes by over-consuming sugar, fat and processed foods, or
consumes legal drugs well-known to lead to addiction, illness and death:
tobacco and alcohol.

"Addiction is one of the biggest challenges that our society faces," Schmitz
continues. "Until we can truly provide good, meaningful care to some of the
sickest people in our communities, we can't really claim to be caring,
compassionate people."

Chamber of Commerce president Sheri Howard said last week that she was unable
to comment on behalf of Smithers' business community on the issue, as it hasn't
been formally considered by the chamber members.
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