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Needle exchanges jump among local drug users

Guelph Mercury ( Ontario , Canada )
May 6, 2006 Saturday
BY FIONA ISAACSON, MERCURY STAFF

DATELINE: GUELPH

Traffic at local needle-exchange sites has gone up, but the people who operate those sites say that's not necessarily a bad thing. And they say trying to understand the surge in demand would violate the privacy of those who use the sites.

Taking a proactive approach to understand the climbing numbers "would be breaching the way we do that business," said Elaine Scott, who deals with adolescent and sexual health programs at Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health.

"What would happen with that is that they would go underground," she said. "Because they don't want to be hassled, they would find another (outlet) or they would start sharing, using needles that are not appropriate."

The needle-exchange program aims to reduce rate of diseases like AIDS, Hepatitis B and C among people who inject drugs. The program is run through the public health unit, which provides clean needles at five locations in Guelph and one in Orangeville.

The number of needles handed out grew almost 75 per cent in the first three months of this year compared to the same period in 2005. Almost 6,000 needles were given out in the first quarter of this year, compared to nearly 3,500 in the first three months of last year.

"It's a positive thing if it's just more people accessing the services and making sure they're using clean equipment, or it could be a bad thing that more people are using drugs. I kind of doubt that's the case," said B.J. Caldwell, who works on HIV/AIDS prevention at the AIDS Committee of Guelph and Wellington County , one of the sites that participate in the needle exchange.

That particular site did not see a surge in numbers, workers said yesterday.

The public health unit will be watching the numbers over the next few months, but Scott said there could be myriad reasons for the increase.

Guelph is a growing city, she said. There may be more people who have heard about the program or some people may have switched to a drug that requires a needle.

"While we're taking notice, and we're interested, I'm not feeling like it's something that I have to somehow institute some kind of measures to try and get to the bottom of this," she said.

However, this summer, the health unit is participating in a federally funded study that will talk to 100 local drug users to see whether the services are adequate or need to be improved.

Caldwell said he thinks crack cocaine, aside from marijuana, is probably the most common drug in the city.

"What the area needs is a complete surveillance, a really good drug surveillance. . . . Definitely, I think that would be a really useful tool," he said.

Many people don't understand how important harm reduction is and how it can save money for the health-care system, he added.

"It's much cheaper to prevent someone from getting Hep C . . . or HIV or any other blood-borne pathogen than it is to spend over the course of that person's life now dealing with chronic illness," he said.

Harm reduction is a way of minimizing the harm people might suffer when they're doing something. It often refers to programs that help drug users kick their habits or use drugs more safely.

Caldwell says people know they're not being judged when people come in to get needles.

"It opens up the door to people who are still using and not thinking about quitting to come in and access services, to access things to keep them safe," he said.

Staff are available to talk to and to help clients find treatment if they want, he said.

The program handed out an average of 4,500 needles in each quarter of 2005.

The needle exchange program started in 1999.