Manitoba

Winnipeg distributed 2 million needles last year — and that number will likely increase

The city has received hundreds of calls about dirty needles, but the city's health authority says distributing millions of syringes is the safest option.

Residents worried about spike in dirty needles say city needs safe consumption site

Ayla Banks, a resident of Furby Street and member of Spence Neighbourhood Association, says she's seeing more needles in her neighbourhood. She says there's a lot of fear around syringes, but there shouldn't be. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

It's a normal spring cleanup in Winnipeg's West End, but this time residents are carrying bottles to store used syringes— a DIY solution to a growing problem.

"We recommend using Gatorade bottles because they're thicker and safer," said Ayla Banks, a member of the Spence Neighbourhood Association.

"This is really cool because you can carry this around in your backpack with you. It's easy for on the go."

Neighbours say they've seen a sharp increase in the number of needles on their street.

"Going for a walk with my wife and my newborn baby, I've seen roughly in a one block radius, 50 to 70 needles at some point," said Denzel Constant, who helped with the cleanup on Furby Street in the city's West End.

"It makes me feel uneasy."

Denzel Constant says he will sometimes see 50-70 needles along his street during one walk. He grew up in the community, and wants to see a safe consumption site. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Calls about dirty needles quadruple

In 2013, the City of Winnipeg received 110 calls to its 311 service about discarded needles.

Since then, those numbers have been increasing. In 2018, that number quadrupled, with 475 calls coming in.

In the last two weeks, the city has seen the number of complaints shoot up too, with roughly 100 calls being made.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said there are a number of reasons why there are more needles on the ground.

"It's probably a combination of us getting more needles available in the community, but also we have been hearing that there is an increase in people using IV drugs, particularly crystal methamphetamine," said Joss Reimer, medical officer of health with the WRHA.

The melting snow is also causing more needles to appear.

"On top of that, I think there's a lot more conversation and awareness, and so people are talking about it," Reimer said.

Last year, the health authority gave out 2 million needles— the most it's ever distributed.

It doesn't plan to slow down.

"We think we still have a ways to go, to make sure we're completely saturating the need and we're reaching everybody who needs it," Reimer said.

Dr. Joss Reimer, a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, says needle distribution programs decrease the spread of HIV and hepatitis, and also help users get off drugs, by connecting them closer to healthcare providers. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Free needles decrease infections: WRHA

Overwhelming evidence shows distributing free needles prevents the spread of infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV, Reimer said.

"Two million is a lot of needles, absolutely," she said.

But Manitoba isn't unique: provinces such as Saskatchewan have distributed more than double that amount, she said.

"Needle distribution programs do not increase drug use, and in fact they tend to increase the number of people who go on to get treatment because they now have that relationship with the health care system," Reimer said.

Of those 2 million needles, the health authority said only about 1 to 2 per cent of them end up on the street, and the risk associated with needles is very low.

"There's been almost no case reports anywhere in the medical literature about people getting an infection from a discarded needle," Reimer said.

"Those infections don't live very long outside of the body. So if a needle has been there since the fall, and it's been in the snow, and now just appearing as the snow melts, the likelihood that there's anything alive in that needle is very, very low."

More syringes are being found on the streets of Winnipeg have many community members worried about safety. 2:26

Calls for safe consumption site

In the meantime, Spence Neighbourhood Association said they'll keep picking up the needles in their community.

"I think everybody is really scared of them, but they don't need to be," Banks said.

The group said they believe the solution is a safe consumption site in the city.

"There's a lot of ways to be safe around this stuff," Banks said.

If you do find a needle in your neighbourhood, the health authority said you can visit their Street Connections website for tips on how to safely pick it up and discard it yourself.

You can also contact the city at 311.

Neighbours survey garbage on Furby Street. They say they want a safe consumption site in the city to help curb the increasing number of discarded needles in Winnipeg. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca

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