Needle distribution has positive effects: report

Mark Rendell Special to The Telegram
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Injection drug use on the rise across the province

An independent assessment of the province’s main needle distribution service found it had a positive impact on drug user health and likely saved the health-care system money.
The report found that SWAP, a program that seeks to reduce HIV and Hepatitis transmission by supplying clean needles to drug users, allowed clients to access supplies from non-judgmental staff, helped addicts connect with treatment and helped spread understanding about drug use.

The assessment was conducted by the consulting firm Goss Gilroy Inc. and released on Friday.

It doesn’t specify exactly how effective the program, which is part of the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador (ACNL), has been at halting the spread of infectious disease.

But it notes, “Through SWAP’s contribution to reducing rates of infection and illness it was felt there have been cost savings to the health system.”

The evaluation and needs assessment was conducted following a dramatic increase in people using the program over the last decade.

Between 2005 and 2012 the number of needles annually distributed by SWAP increased 60-fold, from 5,600 to 330,000.

There seems to be an increase in injection drug use across the province, the report notes; though, “the clandestine nature of the activity makes it more difficult to quantify the exact numbers engaged in injection drug use.”

However the increase in SWAP’s needle distribution can be attributed to their opening “satellite sites” outside of St. John’s, their use of delivery vans, and the 2012 airing of the documentary “The Needle and the Damage Done” which, the report says, raised awareness about the program.

Marie Ryan, the report’s lead author, said the rising number of SWAP needles doesn’t necessarily mean that more needles are left lying around.

But she did note that the ratio of needles given out to those collected was around 60 per cent last year, and had dropped as low as about 50 per cent in 2012.  

It’s one of the key areas, along with record keeping and partnership building, which, according to the report, SWAP needs to improve.

The ACNL has contacted municipalities across the province about the report’s findings, and to a person, says Ryan, the mayors have acknowledged the truth and importance of the report.  

In particular they’ve accepted the crucial point that injection drug use is not limited to St. John’s. Municipalities of all sizes are affected, with areas like Conception Bay North and Labrador growing concerns.

Nor is injection drug use limited to a certain type of person.

The consultants surveyed 55 injection drug users and found a diverse group of people. The male/female spilt was 60 per cent to 40 per cent. The ages ranged from 18 to 61, though more than half were between the ages of 24 and 33.

They had obtained varying levels of education — some had no more than elementary school education and some had post-graduate degrees.

Perhaps most importantly for SWAP, around 30 per cent of respondents said they shared needles with others.

It’s this kind of behavior SWAP is trying to reduce by ensuring access to clean needles, something especially important as around 40 per cent of respondents said they have Hepatitis A, B or C and eight per cent said they have HIV.

Ryan and Gerard Yetman, executive director of the ACNL, will be presenting the report’s findings at the annual Canadian Conference on HIV/AIDS Research that will be held in St. John’s next week.

Organizations: AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador, Goss Gilroy, Ryan and Gerard Yetman AIDS Research

Geographic location: Labrador

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