Needle exchange demand beyond capacity

Barb Sweet
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Numbers up more than 50 per cent

Demand for the Aids Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador’s needle-exchange program has increased considerably in the past two years, says its executive director.

Gerard Yetman, executive director of the Aids Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador, holds needles available in its needle exchange program. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

“We are looking at a 50-60 per cent increase in two years,” Gerard Yetman said.

“The program is not feasible as it is right now.

“The present program is not meeting the demand.”

In 2011-12, the program distributed nearly 180,000 clean needles, but numbers have surpassed twice that amount, in part because it’s become provincial.

Kits distributed through the program also contain other supplies, such as alcohol swabs, cookers, sterile water and an instruction sheet for safe injection.

Last year, the AIDS committee got funding for a needs-assessment report and will receive the document from the consultant this week, with recommendations on what it will take to sustain the program over the next few years and how government can expand harm-reduction efforts and services to fight drug addiction.

Yetman attributes the increase in demand for the needle exchange to greater awareness, particularly after a documentary  — “The Needle and the Damage Undone” by filmmaker Mark Hoffe which aired in 2012 — as well as expansion of the needle-exchange program to Conception Bay North, Lab-rador and central Newfoundland. It was originally centred on St. John’s and Corner Brook.

As well, intravenous drug users trust the needle-exchange program and rely on the confidentiality of mobile outreach staff, Yetman said.

The committee also does pre-release outreach in prisons.

Yetman said the needle-exchange program is one part of efforts to combat drug addiction that includes health care, education, rehabilitation and the services that other non profit group offer.

“We are only a small part of that whole continuum,” Yetman said, adding the needs assessment project will help inform government how to deliver services more effectively.    

“This is not unlike what almost every other city across Canada has had to go through,” he said, adding the committee is doing a joint presentation with Saint John, N.B., and Toronto at the Canadian Association for HIV Research conference  in May.        

 The misperception that needle exchange condones drug use remains, but Yetman cautioned that intravenous drug users are not lying around an alleyway, but often are people who function in society and cross all economic classes.

Better education is needed in schools to target drug experimentation with highly addictive substances youth can try once and get hooked on, such as crack cocaine or prescription pills like OxyContin .

“Teenagers are invincible. Nothing can happen to them. The seriousness is not there,” Yetman said

Organizations: AIDS committee, Yetman said.The committee, Canadian Association for HIV Research

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, Saint John Toronto

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