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Needle exchange program taking aim at hepatitis C

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Since it was established in mid-November, the Fort Frances Area Needle Exchange has seen some use in the district and has been deemed successful by organizers.

“I’m pleased with the how it’s progressing. People are starting to access it, and it’s been requested now in other parts of Northwestern Ontario,” Ken Allan, a team leader with the Northwestern Health Unit here, said during a press conference last week.

“The two main things we want to show is that the program has been used locally, and all sites have made efforts to promote it,” he added.

Statistics on usage are being compiled but Allan noted they won’t be released until after the program’s first year of use.

“I think the thing about annual stats is that people won’t feel singled out,” he said, stressing the program--which operates out of the health unit, Riverside Community Counselling, Gagné Pharmacy, and the Gizhewaadiziwin Access Centre--is strictly confidential.

The program, which also includes counselling and treatment referrals and education, is designed as a “harm reduction” service meant to curb the spread of any blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and all three forms of hepatitis.

Most recently, hepatitis C has been designated as a significant target by the medical field.

“What has been shown clearly is that where there’s a population with injection drug use, there’s hepatitis C,” said Todd Young, a nurse practitioner with the access centre.

“Someone who uses these drugs is at a very high risk [80 percent] of having hepatitis C after one year,” he warned.

“There’s clear evidence that in the next 10-15 years, it’s going to become a huge issue within health care,” Young added.

Hepatitis C is a disease of the liver caused by a virus that potentially leads to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Unlike the more common hepatitis A and B, hepatitis C is not spread through eating or drinking contaminated food or water, or transmitted sexually or pre-natally.

It is most often associated with needle use or other exposure of open wounds to infected blood.

Health Canada reported more than 5,000 individuals in Canada--mostly young people--get this virus each year, and referred to it as “an infection that is spreading rapidly around the world.”

Meanwhile, the needle exchange committee is stepping up its campaign here with more promotion. Posters, coasters, and matchbooks--all printed with a phone number (1-866-888-8988) where the location of exchange sites can be found--soon will be seen at district bars.

Besides the four needle exchange sites, the program also includes services at area First Nations via the access centre.

“Our promotion has expanded from Onegaming to Seine River. We can actually go on reserves and do exchanges there,” said Young. “It’s flexibility for our clients.”

The needle exchange was made possible through a $17,000 grant from Health Canada in March, 2000.

“It’s important to know the funding was for start-up--training and one-time expenses,” Allan stressed. “The sustainability will likely be within our means.

“However, hepatitis C is such an important issue, we’ll have to determine what sort of future support we’ll receive from Health Canada,” he added.

Similar needle exchanges have been established in Kenora and Sioux Lookout since the one here was set up.

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