Residents of Fort Frances and surrounding area have become concerned about the apparent increase in used needles (or sharps) found in various public spaces, such as playgrounds and school campuses.
In response to a petition sent to the Northwestern Health Unit, as well as a letter to the editor published in the Aug. 1 edition of the Fort Frances Times, a community information session regarding the Needle Exchange Program (NEP) facilitated by the health unit, and mandated by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, was held last night at La Place Rendez-Vous here.
Concerned residents, emergency workers, health unit staff, and other health-care providers made up the roughly 50 people in attendance.
The presentation was given by Gillian Lunny, manager of sexual health and harm reduction at the health unit.
The online petition and letter to the editor noted “these bio-hazardous materials threaten the safety of children, pets, and anyone else who could come across them.”
Both also called on the Northwestern Health Unit to change its program and adopt a “1:1 exchange,” which would require users to bring back their needles in order to request new ones.
If someone requests needles, but has none to give, they won't be given new ones.
But Lunny said data shows the “1:1 exchange” program does not solve the concern of discarded needles, and actually leads to an increase of blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis.
“If someone needed a needle to inject and I can't give them one—because they haven't given me one—they're going to go get a needle,” she explained.
“It's the way addiction works," she added. ”They're going to find a needle and, likely, they're going to find a needle that someone else has used.
“Research very clearly shows that when we have a one-to-one exchange, HIV rates go up,” Lunny stressed.
Currently, about 6.5 percent of Canadians have HIV, with Ontario being on par to the national average.
Saskatchewan, on the other hand, has nearly double the national average.
In 2008, that province's NEP evaluation noted the programs “fundamentally are successful” and noted a 90 percent return rate.
The following year, however, then-premier Brad Wall limited the amount of new needles allowed to be handed out because of public backlash of the programs.
In 2016, the percentage of new HIV cases causes by injection drug use was at 60 percent (the national average is just above 11 percent).
Lunny provided information on global studies that had been done in 1997 and 2002, two years where the HIV epidemic was most prevalent, that stated in cities where NEPs were present, HIV seroprevalance—the level of pathogen in a population, as measured in blood—had dropped by 5.8 percent per year.
Those cities without the programs, on the other hand, jumped by 5.9 percent.
Lunny also stressed “there's no evidence that NEPs encourage or promote drug use" and "they don't lead to greater amounts of discarded needles on the ground.”
In addition, it was noted NEPs are cost-effective, although exact figures were not provided.
“Across the board, the prevention of chronic disease is way cheaper than paying for the result or the impact of chronic disease,” Lunny said.
“If you look at the cost of what a lifetime of HIV is to taxpayer dollars, what one course of treatment for hepatitis C is for taxpayer dollars, NEPs are absolutely cost-effective.”
Meanwhile, many on hand were shocked to see the need of some form of harm-reduction program in Rainy River District due to opioid and other drug overdoses.
In 2016, the number of ER visits due to opioid overdose per 100,000 people was 56 percent, compared to the province's rate of just under 32 percent.
As well, the number of needles given out in Fort Frances and surrounding area last year was 112,923—more than double the numbers just two years previous.
Local resident Kevin Douse said he attended last night's information session “to understand the success of the program" and "understand the strategies they have for reducing needles found on the ground” in public spaces around town.
He admitted after hearing that contracting an infection and risk of injury from a discarded needle is very low, he feels less concerned.
But Douse added the installation of more public disposal units, in addition to the five that already exist (two at the Point, and one each at the Lions Park, Couchiching fire hall, and behind the health unit office), should be something that happens more quickly.
In addition to the outdoor public disposal containers, the health unit also provides many indoor containers, picks up needles, and provides smaller “pick-up kits” for schools, community partners, individuals, and businesses and will provide training, as well.
Forty-seven “pick-up kits” were distributed in 2017, with 25 already have been distributed this year.
The health unit also partners with various other community groups, including the local Bear Clan Patrol, to better track and clean discarded needles that may be found.
Clinton Gray, who is running for town council here, said he attended the session because he has been concerned about taking his eight-year-old daughter to parks as a result of perhaps finding a discarded needle.
“I just feel unsafe and I felt like I wanted to come out and see what I could do to help,” he noted.
Gray admitted he also feels better after attending the session but said the outdoor sharp containers should be installed at every local park, echoing Douse's remarks.
“I have a nephew that was actually poked by one," he said. ”That's going to stay with me and having my own eight-year-old daughter. . . .
“This is my home, this is Fort Frances," Gray added. "I really think we need to do as much as we can to help people with these problems but also protect our kids.”
Lunny said the health unit also attends district schools on an annual basis to educate children about what to do when they find items in a park, such as tourniquets and discarded needles.
She stressed they do not talk about drugs but fill a sandbox with items that are related to outdoor safety—sunscreen, water, a rusty nail, an unused and capped needle, and a tourniquet, for example.
As kids digs around the sandbox and find these items, health unit workers explain to them what each item is and how they can be safe, such as wearing sunscreen while in the sun or drinking water to stay hydrated.
“When we talk about needles, we say, 'This is a needle. You can get very sick if you touch this. Do not touch this and tell and adult,'” Lunny noted.
Pam King said she attended the session because she is “curious" and "a concerned citizen.”
“I care about what kids are finding [and] what adults are finding," she remarked. ”I just wanted to be informed. . . .
“I do feel it's greater than just the exchange program.”
King also was surprised by some of the statistics in the area.
“I was also surprised to learn that there is a proactive movement with some of the community partners getting together and perhaps coming to a greater solution,” she noted.
“It doesn't end here, it doesn't just end tonight," King stressed. ”There should be information sessions held maybe monthly for people who want to be better informed. . . .
“Let's all work together to solve it.”
Lunny and the health unit are open to suggestions, comments, and concerns from the public regarding the needle exchange program, as well as other programs that the health unit offers.
Those who would like to do so can contact the health unit's office here at 274-9827, the general line at 1-800-830-5978, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
You also can visit their website at www.nwhu.on.ca to fill out a feedback survey.