Vik Kirsch, Mercury staff
GUELPH — A program that supplies clean needles to local intravenous drug users in exchange for used ones is on course to distribute thousands of additional syringes this year.
The needle-exchange program of the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health unit issued almost 28,900 needles between January and June. It expects that will translate into between 7,000 and 8,000 more needles being provided by the end of this year than the 50,000 that were given out in 2009 to 1,019 clients, public health adult and clinical services program manager Rosalyn LaRochelle said.
The program also took in more than 20,200 used needles from January through June, a trend that’s also on the rise, LaRochelle said.
Both trends, which local officials say is also being reflected at other Ontario needle-exchange programs, should be regarded as positives, said Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy Committee interim co-ordinator Lindsay Klassen.
“We really recognize they’re reducing infection,” Klassen said, referring to risks such as blood-borne HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C from sharing dirty hypodermic needles.
But this program, which is funded by the health unit and operated by the AIDS Committee of Guelph and Wellington County, isn’t a panacea, she warned.
“It doesn’t reduce all the harms,” Klassen said, adding shooting up street drugs still comes with the risk of drug overdose or other detrimental health effects on the body from introducing foreign substances into the blood.
Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, through the Ontario Harm Reduction Distribution Program, funds needles and related supplies, including tourniquets, vitamin C, spoons, cotton balls and sterile water for intravenous drug users.
They needles are intended to be used once and returned to the health unit. “That’s what we hope,” LaRochelle said.
There’s also hope that supplying intravenous drug users with the clean paraphernalia they need not only reduces the spread of disease, but builds a relationship with health professionals that offers a bridge to abstinence once addicts reach that point.
“It allows us to be connected with those people,” she said. “You can get them toward a level of recovery.”
Overall, she sees it as the best approach to the troubling reality of this form of drug addiction.
“I’m comfortable with the approach,” LaRochelle said.
The AIDS committee’s harm reduction outreach co-ordinator, Natalie Basaraba, sees it as a good way to lessen the spread of illness. When needle exchange is dropped from a community, infection rates climb, she said.
“Prevention is certainly cheaper than treatment,” she continued, citing the medical costs of AIDS of more than $400,000 a year per person. There’s also the significant humanitarian aspect of harm reduction, she stressed.
Who are those injecting drugs? LaRochelle said they tend to be baby boomers more than 20-somethings. “That’s the biggest group coming for the service.”
Generally speaking, the drugs of choice for Ontarians are opiates, such as morphine, cocaine and amphetamines, Klassen said. In Guelph, the most common are heroin and oxycodone, the active ingredient in a prescription drug that can be crushed, liquefied and injected.
Prescription opiates, in fact, are increasingly finding their way onto the local black market, she added.