1.5M needles distributed through Sudbury health unit program in 2018
Another story in our series about opiod use in northern Ontario
Ever wonder where all those needles used on the streets come from?
They are provided by our health care system — for free — as a way to help people be healthy and safe.
It falls under the umbrella of what people in the health care field call "harm reduction."
Ginette Cyr is a public health nurse and the program lead for the needle exchange program at Public Health Sudbury and District.
She says the purpose of the program is to offer clean, sterile supplies to prevent the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV throughout the population.
"We've seen over 23,000 visits in the needle exchange program in 2018, which amounts to a little bit over 1.5 million needles being distributed."
Needle exchange programs started in Canada in the late 1980s. Studies around the world have shown that they slow the spread of disease and are cost effective.
Back in 1991, the Australian government spent $10 million to provide clean needles — a measure that reportedly prevented about 3,000 people from getting HIV. Researchers say the program saved the Australian health care system more than $250 million — and the lives or many.
A more recent study in Hamilton showed that over a five year period, a needle exchange program there would save the health care system $1.3 million, by preventing 24 cases of HIV.
"The service is needed," Cyr says of the high numbers of needles distributed.
"These are people that work, some of them are homeless, some of them have good jobs, some of them have children. So [we're] trying to help them and make sure that they are safe, and have access to social services or health care."
The health unit distributes much more than syringes.
At their office at the Rainbow Centre shopping mall, there's an array of harm reduction equipment. There's even a crack pipe kit, a meth pipe kit, sterilized water, tourniquets and much more. Alongside them are brochures with titles like "Safer Crack Smoking" and "Safer Injecting." The pamphlets include step-by-step instructions with diagrams showing users how to prepare a drug, how to inject it, and dispose of the equipment. There's also a page warning about the signs of overdose.
'This could be the end of somebody's life'
That's where naloxone comes in. It's is a medication that temporarily reverses the effects of an opiod overdose.
Last year, about 2,440 naloxone kits were distributed by Public Health Sudbury and Districts. In the first five months of this year, they've already handed out 2,700 kits.
Joel Boivin has actually used naloxone to safe a life. The registered nurse and a Harm Reduction Outreach Worker with the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth [SACY] was walking on a trail in Sudbury last summer, when he heard there was an overdose nearby.
"I ran down, I started CPR right away. She had been overdosed for probably a couple minutes by the time I got there," Boivin recalled.
"She was blue in the face from lack of oxygen and things like that ... it was at that point [I thought] ... this could be the end of somebody's life."
Boivin was able to administer naloxone, an ambulance arrived, and the woman was saved.
Boivin does a lot of his harm prevention work in the streets, caring for those who are homeless. SACY has an office where people can drop in to get needles and counselling. But he and the other workers also take the syringes to the streets.
"Right now I have my backpack ... it's full of supplies used to safely consume substances."
Boivin can easily give out 450 needles during an evening tour, and he says some nights workers need to refill the backpack before finishing their shift. SACY also does deliveries to up to 30 homes, once per week, collecting used supplies at the same time.
Last year just over one million used needles were returned in Sudbury — that's a 66 per cent return rate.
That number doesn't include the needles that end up in the collection bins placed by the city, or the needles returned at pharmacies or the toxic taxi.
John Moore used to provide needles to his wife and friends out of his house.
He moved to Sudbury this past year from British Columbia, after his wife died from a drug overdose. John says making the syringes available was the right thing.
"Realistically it kept them healthier because they had clean gear to use ... and not sharing. I have [shared needles in the past] and I didn't like doing the injections. It was a very, very short time."
These days John is spending his time studying, taking college courses and is thinking of becoming a nurse. But he knows how precarious life can be and keeps in touch with the folks at SACY, like Boivin.
Mental health supports 'not always available'
"Harm reduction is more of a philosphy of non-judgemental care and accepting where people are at," Boivin says.
"We recognize that drug use does happen , and it's happened in every culture throughout history. It's not mine to really say how hard somebody's situation is ... and how 'copeable' that is with or without drugs. There's some room in there that we can still help them stay safe and stay alive, even in the hardest times."
Let's see how we can actually build the society where we have the supports that we need ...- Joel Boivin
Boivin adds he would much prefer there were services for people to get the pain relief from a professional ... and not a drug dealer.
"I think I'm tired of being sad about it ... and I think I'm at the point of, 'OK, let's be angry, let's see how we can change this. Let's see how we can actually build the society where we have the supports that we need," he says.
"We have that safety net for when we fall. There is something better to lift us up than addiction. There is somebody there to support us, more than our drug dealer."
Boivin concedes that, as a society, we're not there yet. And Ginette Cyr — from Public Health Sudbury — agrees.
"There needs to be better services for mental health. Not everyone is ready to quit their drug use right away, but they still need some support. And that's not always available," she says.
"If someone comes in today and tells me, 'I want to quit, I've had enough. This is a hard life. I'm ready.' Well, they have to wait, sometimes two months for treatment services. What is there to offer them in the meantime?"
In our HOOKED series, we're looking at the impact opiod addiction is having on our community.