While preventing drug use is ideal, it's not always an achievable goal. For individuals with an existing drug dependency, the Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) is offering harm reduction services.
During day one of the “Substance Awareness and Pathways to Healing” conference Monday, Christy Herr and Katy Esselink of the NWHU spoke about how their unit reduces drug-related harm in the community.
The harm reduction services that the NWHU provides are proven to not encourage use, but instead help to improve the health and likelihood of recovery for someone with a drug use disorder.
“Harm reduction is about showing compassion to people with addictions and removing the stigma that may keep them from seeking help,” Esselink explained to the audience gathered at the Copper River Inn.
“It recognizes that if people are going to use drugs, they might as well do it in the safest environment possible,” she added.
“It's about prioritizing a persons life ahead of their addiction,” noted Esselink.
The NWHU currently offers non-restricted needle exchange programs.
The non-restricted aspect makes the program more likely to be accessed by someone with a drug dependency problem.
“We know if needle exchange programs are restricted, it will increase the likeliness of needles being reused and/or shared,” Esselink explained.
“Programs like this do not increase drug use, initiate drug use, or criminal activity but instead, decreases the transmission of bloodborne infections.”
In addition to providing the tools to safely inject, snort, or inhale drugs, the NWHU also provides proper education to those accessing their services.
They talk to people about safe needle disposal, how to treat injection-related wounds and sometimes help to provide referrals for housing.
The dangers of injecting drugs doesn't lie solely in sharing needles, Esselink warned, but also the dangers of using the same needle multiple times.
By reusing needles, there is an increased chance of an infection forming on injection-related wounds.
“Skin infections can become more than just an issue with the site, it can lead to systemic issues and infections of the heart,” Esselink warned.
Through the needle exchange program, the NWHU hopes to help negate these issues.
Programs like these are important for helping drug users, as opiate use is on the rise.
In Ontario, there are more people overdosing on opiates than dying in car crashes, with one death every 13 hours from opiate overdose, compared to one death every 18 hours on the province's roadways.
To combat opioid drug overdose, the NWHU distributes Naloxone kits that help to reverse potentially fatal opiate overdoses, from drugs like fentanyl. heroin, or oxycodone.
In 2017, the health unit gave out 107 naloxone kits in the Fort Frances area and had three confirmed uses of the kits during opioid overdoses. During the same year, the NWHU gave out a total of 682 kits in the unit's catchment area.
While opiate use is a problem in Fort Frances, there has been a recent increase in methamphetamine being reported as the drug of choice for people who access the needle exchange program.
In 2016, only 2.5 percent of those accessing the needle program reported meth as their preferred drug, the numbers more than tripled up to a total of eight percent in 2017.
Esselink said many people with a drug dependency use more than one drug, so it's not uncommon for someone to inject methamphetamine after taking an opiate to level themselves out.
“By having a non-judgmental and caring approach with our clients, they open up to us about their use and we are able to build trusting relationships with them,” she noted.
“We also help them access healthcare more easily and appropriately as well as do little things like remind them to drink water and get some rest,” added Esselink.
Moving forward, the NWHU will continue to provide needle exchange, safe needle disposals, naloxone kits, up-to-date information regarding opioids, and HIV and Hepatitis B or C testing, as well as counselling.
These services can be accessed locally at the Northwestern Health Unit on 396 Scott Street.
The NWHU encourages those who are in need of treatment, to access their services, and not suffer alone.