Kenora residents will be able to voice their opinions on the community’s discarded needle situation and the Northwestern Health Unit’s needle exchange program tonight.

The health unit is hosting a community information session about their harm reduction programs, and the public is welcome to come and learn more about the program and to ask any questions they have to health unit staff.

“Our programs are often misunderstood by the public, so this is a chance for us to talk about what we do and to address some of the common misconceptions about our programs,” said Manager of Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Programs with the NWHU, Gillian Lunny. Lunny added that she has presented similar presentations to the community in recent years.

“People jump to conclusions about our needle exchange program, or they hear things from other people. Taking a look through social media, there are a lot of misconceptions that are stated as fact on social media. This will be a great opportunity to talk about why we need the needle exchange program, how important it is, and how it benefits the community.”

The health unit says that they have been studying the effects of needle exchange programs since the 1990’s. The program is mandated by the provincial Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, to reduce the spread of blood-borne infections like HIV and hepatitis.

The introduction of the city’s mountable sharps container for the storing of used needles increased the number of needles returned by about 25 per cent in the region, based on 2016 statistics.

“We often hear people ask why we have the needle exchange programs and ‘enable people’, how our programs just don’t work, and we should try harder to get people into treatment. We don’t have to look far to see what happens to communities when needle exchange programs don’t exist.”

Within the past decade, the province of Saskatchewan has reported HIV rates that are two-to-three times higher than any other province in Canada, which Lunny says is due to the province’s mismanagement and in-access of needle exchange programs.

According to Health Canada, Saskatchewan’s HIV rates – which had previously been classified as a public health emergency – hit Indigenous communities the hardest. The rate of new infections on reserves was 64 per 100,000 people – nearly 11 times the national average, and rivaled third-world nations. In America, Indiana also showed that the lack of a needle exchange program led to skyrocketing rates of blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis C.

A petition was started against the health unit’s needle exchange program earlier this summer, which called on health unit staff to only provide harm reduction supplies to those who return used supplies – as a needle deposit program.

Lunny adds that evidence and studies from the 1990’s repeatedly found that communities that introduced a one-to-one needle exchange program – notably Ottawa – had much higher HIV and hepatitis infection rates – due to the sharing of used needles.

Staff at the health unit have looked at a similar needle exchange program model, which would offer 10 or 25 cents for each needle returned. However, studies showed that participants didn't carry the used needles in a safe manner, which lead to health and safety issues. One-to-one needle exchange programs have largely been discarded across Canada, due to their repeated and proven ineffectiveness.

Lunny stressed that the needle exchange program is only a part of what the health unit does in their role to help residents with their addictions. Staff also provide referrals and help residents access various community services to those in need.

“Another misconception is that we don’t care if people get better, and that we don’t have a role in getting people into treatment. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We work very hard to connect people with housing, counselling, treatment, and much more. The program is designed to help people that are currently addicted, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to see people get better.”

Lunny added that the health unit has worked with community organizations to figure out common areas where needles are being found. The health unit will also track any calls regarding used needles, and will record any information regarding where the needles were found, how many were found, if they were used, and if they were capped or not. She says it’s important to report where used needles are being found, opposed to posting to social media and not notifying health unit staff.

Lunny reminds residents that the health unit is more than willing to provide Harm Reduction Kits to organizations, workplaces and the public to help support safe disposal of needles, and to minimize the risk of infections. The program can also provide workplace presentations. 

If residents do have to pick up a used needle themselves, the health unit offered safety tips to residents:

- If possible, use gloves and tongs to pick up the needle, 
- Never put the cap back on a needle,
- Place the needle in a hard-sided plastic container, tightly seal and label “Needle”,
- Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer after picking up a needle,
- Return the needle to your local NWHU office,
- Never put needles down the toilet, in drains or in the garbage,
- Call your local NWHU office to pick-up needles safely if you cannot. 

If the worst happens and a used needle does puncture your skin, residents are encouraged to seek medical attention. However, the risk of contracting a blood-borne infection from a discarded needle hovers around the one per cent range.

The event will take place tonight at 6 p.m., at the Clarion Lakeside Inn’s Rosewood Room. The information session will begin with Lunny’s presentation on their programs, before the community will be able to ask any questions they have, offer suggestions, and to bring any concerns to the health unit.

harmreductionkitThe Northwestern Health Unit has Harm Reduction Kits available for those who are comfortable cleaning up discarded needles themselves. Photo courtesy of the Northwestern Health Unit.
For more information:
Health unit’s needle policy divisive
NWHU – Needle Exchange Program

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