Pubdate: Fri, 05 Feb 2016
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Copyright: 2016 The London Free Press
Author: Jonathan Sher
Page: A3

Fighting HIV/AIDS


After years of fierce debate over whether London should create safe 
injection sites for drug users, researchers will take to the streets 
to seek answers.

A feasibility study is being launched by the Ontario HIV Treatment 
Network and the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection to sort out whether safe 
injection sites makes sense here, and if so, how they might be 
utilized best. "I have seen too many people die of complications from 
injection drug use," says Dr. Sharon Koivu, a physician with the 
London Health Sciences Centre and one of the principals behind the 
study. "We need to find ways to stop these tragic deaths and help 
people wherever they are on their journey to recovery."

The history of safe injection sites in Canada is a short one: 
Vancouver has long had one while major cities such as Toronto, 
Montreal and Ottawa have all conducted feasibility studies. But there 
had been no such studies in small and mid-sized cities until now - 
London and Thunder Bay will each conduct a study. "What can work in 
Vancouver might not work here," said Geoff Bardwell, who is 
co-ordinating the research.

Public health officials say the sites save lives because users get 
clean needles, nurses intervene for overdoses and the sites offer 
other health services that can place those users on a path to 
recovery. Many police forces have objected, concerned that the sites 
foster illegal drug use and attract criminal activity nearby. There 
will be three key elements to the study, explained Bardwell. 
Statistics Canada releases employment figures for the London Census 
Metropolitan Area (CMA). It includes Strathroy-Caradoc and St. 
Thomas, but is considered to be economically integrated. The 
estimated population of the London CMA in 2014 was 502,360.

Surveys will be given to those who use injectable drugs to learn what 
they use, where they use it, how they protect themselves now, how far 
they might go to get to a safe site and whether they might make use 
of other health services at the same time. To help reach injection 
drug users across the city, researchers chose three former users to 
help distribute surveys, he explained. Once the surveys are done, 
Bardwell will interview key stakeholders, including public health 
officials and police. Also giving input will be representatives of 
neighbourhood associations and downtown businesses.

The goals it to understand the potential benefits and risks. "We need 
to ensure we're taking into account everyone's viewpoints," he said. 
Once the survey and interviews are done, researchers will host town 
halls, something Bardwell expects would happen in the summer or fall. 
"We know that there are many concerns related to injection drug use, 
such as overdose, infectious disease, public injection and 
drug-related litter," says Ayden Scheim, a study investigator based 
at Western University. "Our study will engage stakeholders . . . To 
see whether supervised injection services could play a role in 
addressing those concerns here in London."

There's no doubt safe injection sites have improved public health 
elsewhere, said Dr. Chris Mackie, the London region's medical officer 
of health, but that isn't the only issue. "It's very important not to 
rush into this sort of thing and (instead) to make sure it is a fit 
for the community," he said.
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