The Northwestern Health Unit will look into setting up a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users here following a meeting with various local partners this week.
While team leader Ken Allan stressed the proposal is “very early on in the process,” it was agreed the health unit should look into getting more information on whether such a program is a viable undertaking.
“People agree it’s a good prevention strategy but as to how to go about finding the information to know if it’s necessary here is what we’re concerned with now,” he noted.
The aim of an exchange program is to provide sterile syringes for intravenous drug users—an issue all health units must look at as per Ministry of Health guidelines.
With a program already underway in Thunder Bay, and similar ones being looked at in Kenora and Sioux Lookout, it’s thought intravenous drug use could be on the rise in Northwestern Ontario.
Last year, 49,033 syringes were taken in at the Thunder Bay exchange while 43,288 were handed out.
Allan reasoned a community one-tenth the size of the city, like Fort Frances, theoretically could have one-tenth the users.
“The numbers from the Thunder Bay program are a cause for concern, and are worth looking into,” he said.
While in no way condoning such drug use, Allan maintained a needle exchange program would help prevent the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C among users—and the rest of the community.
“It’s been found that if you can get a program in place before 10 percent of needle-users is infected with any blood disease, it will greatly curb the further spread of that disease,” Allan noted.
This approach is called the “harm reduction” policy, whereby the goal is to reduce the consequences of drug use rather than eliminate it.
Allan said if a program was set up here, it wouldn’t be as overt as the syringe dispensing truck that makes stops around Thunder Bay.
“We’d have a different strategy—definitely private and confidential. If there’s people at risk, we’d like to have something in place for them,” he remarked.
Besides the actual exchange of syringes, the program also would include counselling—and referrals to rehabilitation services.
Despite the stigma to having such a program here, and what it may demonstrate to the youth about drug use, local public health nurse Myrna Kraynyk-Cooper said much of the concern is unfounded.
“There’s a huge fear that if you offer an exchange, the rate of users increases. But studies show that just isn’t the case,” she stressed.
As the unit works to gather data on cases of intravenous drug use in the area, the future of the program also will rely on participation of its partners, which includes counsellors and support workers from various agencies.
A second meeting to discuss the program is slated for next month.