Pubdate: Thu, 15 May 2008
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2008 Times Colonist
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Needle exchanges work. They protect the lives of intravenous drug 
users. They reduce health-care costs. They help drug users connect 
with needed services. They cut the number of discarded needles. And 
they do not increase drug use.

Those are not claims. They are facts, based on extensive research 
since the first Canadian needle exchange opened in Toronto 21 years ago.

We understand that the idea of providing needles makes some people 
uncomfortable. But a decision this important -- one that is literally 
life and death -- has to be based on facts, not our desire to avoid discomfort.

Yet in barely two weeks, the region's only needle exchange will close 
its doors. AIDS Vancouver Island is scrambling to try to replace the 
exchange with a mobile service. That's an unsatisfactory substitute.

Mobile exchanges are much less likely to be used, particularly by 
those most at risk from shared needles. The chaotic lives of many 
drug users make it unlikely they will connect with a roaming van. 
That means more disease transmission and more discarded needles on 
the streets. (The current exchange takes in more needles than it distributes.)

Mobile exchanges also are far less effective in guiding drug users to 
the services that can help them and reduce health-care costs and 
street disorder. A fixed exchange provides a chance to connect with 
drug users and steer them to nurses or counsellors or information on 
managing their drug use to reduce the damage done. It can be the 
first step toward treatment or a more stable life.

It will be a huge step backward in terms of public health and safety 
if, after almost two decades, the region loses such an important service.

We understand the apprehension of those living in the area of a 
proposed new location on Pandora Avenue. The Vancouver Island Health 
Authority has purchased a building for the exchange and other health 
services, but halted relocation plans in the face of fierce 
opposition. Critics cited particularly concern about the effect on 
St. Andrew's Elementary School in the next block.

Their fears are, unfortunately, justified. A number of factors, 
mainly underfunding, led to major problems for neighbours of the 
current needle exchange on Cormorant Street. Those problems have now 
been greatly reduced thanks to increased staffing and police 
enforcement, but the damage has been done.

But there is good reason to accept assurances the problems will not 
be repeated at the new location. The former St. John Ambulance 
building is large enough to ensure people don't congregate outside; 
it will house a range of additional support services; and police have 
promised officers will be attached to the facility and will be 
patrolling in the area.

Needle exchanges operate in almost two dozen communities across 
Canada, large and small, with minimal disruption to neighbourhoods. 
That should suggest that the problems on Cormorant Street are a 
reflection of mistakes made here, not of the risk of needle exchanges 

The plan to relocate a needle exchange to Pandora Avenue should go 
ahead. The city and VIHA should commit, in writing, to the actions 
that will be taken to ensure neighbours are not affected. And the 
exchange should operate on a one-year trial basis, with specific 
benchmarks to be met before it is made permanent.

The needle exchange is a critical health service, with benefits for 
all members of the community. Its closure would bring increased 
suffering, illness, street disorder and rising health costs. The 
relocation should go ahead.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom