Pubdate: Tue, 17 Jun 2008
Source: Fort McMurray Today (CN AB)
Copyright: 2008 Fort McMurray Today
Author: Verna Murphy
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


A needle exchange program in another Alberta city is helping drug 
users there avoid HIV, say officials. That news comes as some are 
pushing for a similar program here.

Red Deer has 86,000 citizens, with a population comparable to Fort 
McMurray. The Central Alberta city has had a needle exchange program 
since 1996.

Jennifer Vanderscheghe, executive director of the Red Deer HIV and 
AIDS Society, said "We started the program in response to an 
increased HIV rate in people who used drugs. We started doing 
research, including environmental scanning and we obtained client 
feedback about what they would want in a program and how they would 
want it delivered."

"HIV is quite easy to get if you share injection supplies. Harm 
reduction is a public health approach, that is a proven method in 
increasing health in drug users and decreasing blood born pathogens," 
said Vanderscheghe.

In Fort McMurray, needles used for injecting drugs and discarded in 
public is one of the issues officials want to target with an exchange.

The Red Deer program has expanded to include nine drop-off boxes 
around the city.

"We maxed out at giving out 10,000 needles a month right before the 
Central Alberta methadone program came to town. When the methadone 
clinic opened up we lost about 100 of our clients. This meant that 
they no longer were injecting drugs or looking for drugs because 
their drug was being dispensed by a pharmacy," said Vanderscheghe.

A methadone clinic dispenses a legal synthetic opium replacement 
therapy, by physician-approved prescription. Vanderscheghe said it is 
important that people realize that this is not the same as crystal 

"By using this therapy, a lot of injection users stabilized their 
lives within months. We saw people that were living on the streets go 
within four or five months to having dental care, eyeglasses, a job 
and a house. Just by normalizing the amount of drug they use, the 
change is amazing in their lives," said Vanderscheghe.

Rose Boucher-Blacker, the harm reduction co-ordinator in Red Deer, 
said the number of needles being passed out after the methadone 
clinic opened dropped to around 4,500, but increased again to around 5,000.

"We are seeing more crack (cocaine). People are using a variety of 
drugs, and not only injecting," said Boucher-Black.

Boucher-Black said the downtown businesses, EMS, RCMP and city 
officials are working together on the program. It takes community 
input, but also works with the clients they are serving to develop a 
program that is effective. "This is a community issue. We want to 
support individuals who may have needle debris on them to dispose of 
it at a convenient location, but we also want to make sure that the 
community the capacity to be able to dispose of the needles as well," 
said Boucher-Black.

Vanderscheghe said although her group gives out 5,000 needles a 
month, they only hear about one or two needles found on the ground in 
the same time period. "The needle debris issue here isn't huge, but 
it is an opportunity to have a collaborative discussion about drug 
use and the impact of drug use on our community."

"The difference between our needle debris and the needle debris that 
you would find in Fort McMurray is that hopefully the needles you 
would find here would only have been used once. The needles found 
there will probably have been used many times. That means that not 
only are they more dangerous as far as infection, but the people that 
are sharing needles are at significant risk for hepatitis C and HIV," 
said Vanderscheghe.

"Because I come from a nursing background and I firmly believe this 
is and should be a public health initiative -- people need to long at 
the bottom line of what it would cost to treat someone with HIV or 
hepatitis C," said Boucher-Black. "If they look at it only from only 
about the dollar figures that it costs to treat someone, and then 
look at the cost of providing a clean needle. One needle and one 
condom costs 18 cents versus $750,000 to treat someone with HIV."

Vanderscheghe said prevention, treatment and enforcement are ke,y but 
there is a time when people are using drugs when they deserve 
services, because it is their human right.

"Needles are almost a hook for getting people in the door," said 
Vanderschege. "People quit when it is their time, but the more people 
who support them and don't judge them, the more likely that when they 
are ready to quit they will access the treatment programs."
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