Group wants to start needle exchange
By VERNA MURPHY
Friday June 06, 2008
Injection drug users in Fort McMurray will soon have a safe place to drop off their dirty needles.
“Addictions have to be seen as a mental health issue,” said Daven Seebarran, executive director of Wood Buffalo HIV & AIDS Society. “It is never just the act of being addicted to something, it’s the underlying factors that contribute to the addiction. There is a reason why people are addicted to crack, cocaine, marijuana ... quite often drug use is turned to by many of the men in town as a means to combat social isolation, or a feeling of loneliness. They have been taken away from what they feel comfortable with, their home their families, their social supports.”
Seebarran said many who become addicted to various drugs use the drugs unsafely, unsanitarily, and are putting themselves at risk by sharing drug paraphernalia like needles and cookers.
“This puts them at a higher risk for Hepatitis C, HIV and other blood born pathogens, but it throws them into a cycle of further addiction as well and we are putting them into prison. We are not addressing the factors that attributed to them getting to where they are. The stigma that addiction is a weakness needs to be abolished all together. We need to develop some better support systems for those who are suffering with addictions,” said Seebarran.
A needle exchange program is one support system the society sees a need for in McMurray.
“We saw the need for it, we saw models throughout Alberta that are working and we are trying to implement the best pieces of them that suit our needs in McMurray. The needle exchange that we envision is multi-faceted and will take a few years to grow to it’s full potential. Initially we will be starting off with a simple exchange program that will consist of drop off boxes at various locations across the city. And they will be at social service organizations which govern themselves,” said Seebarran.
With drop-offs, Seebarran said needles will no longer be found on the ground by ordinary people.
“It will be a program where people will bring in their dirty needles, dispose of it themselves in a container, and we will not operate on a one to one system because that will act as a barrier to an effective needle exchange program. And people can then request clean needles,” said Seebarran.
The dirty needles will be collected by a disposal company and be incinerated.
One of the main concerns of the people setting up the program is for the health of the people they are serving.
Other supplies will be given out to users such as lip balm, straws, citric acid and sterile water.
The lip balm is given to protect their lips from crack pipe burns and cracking.
The citric acid can be mixed in with the drugs and water and injected into a vein to protect the user.
“We have to protect the health of injecting drug users and crack smokers and all drug users really. It is a public health concern if we don’t and the effects that it will have on our health care system will be burdensome,” said Seebarran.
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Would a needle exchange program encourage drug use? Seebarran explained “Needle exchange programs are acknowledging that drugs are part of a culture that exist in Fort McMurray and throughout Canada. We are helping to clean up the community, and acknowledging that drugs are part of the human condition, we can’t change that,” said Seebarran.
Seebarran points to the success of Insite, a safe, supervised injection site in Vancouver, to support the importance of programs like this.
“Insite is one of the most successful injection sites/needle exchange programs in the world. We have research that validates the work that is going on there. The health of people has increased there and the rates of violent crime have been reduced,” said Seebarran.
“When we look at a client on the street, it’s not a drug user we are looking at, we are looking at someone who is under-housed, someone who may have mental health issues, someone who is disenfranchised, someone who has an addiction issue, someone who needs respect and is entitled to every human right and to be show some humanity. We are a very affluent community here in Fort McMurray, and the least we can do is to help those who are less fortunate than we are,” said Seebarran.
The program has not been easy for the society to get off the ground.
“It is causing us a lot of stress right now. We still have to meet with the mayor to discuss this, we have to meet with the hospital to get them involved. In talking with front-line workers, they see the need for such a program. The ones that are having a difficult time are those that are in tall brick buildings, sitting in offices with their names on the doors. Because they are not dealing with someone that has damaged veins because they have injected improperly. They are the ones that get a report every couple of months saying what the situation is in town.”
“The public health nurses and people who work at the Centre of Hope and Salvation Army, the ones who are dealing with these people and are doing amazing work. They recognize the need for this program,” said Seebarran.
In a study done by the society in 2003 and again last May, results showed that 100 per cent of those surveyed locally, had found needles or drug paraphernalia in or around their facilities.
“In 2003, it was a more extensive study, hotels, businesses, and social service agencies did report 100 per cent that they found paraphernalia, especially needles in the downtown area,” said Seebarran.
“In the years to come I would love for the program to be fully sustainable. I would love the entire community to buy into the program. I would like to see the program eventually in a building of it’s own, so that the barriers to access the services will not exist. People will come and go as they like. This will save lives in Fort McMurray,” concluded Seebarran.
Numerous calls made over more than a week by Today to Wood Buffalo officials looking for comment on the issue were not returned.