London hands out 2.5M needles to addicts every year

Researchers are conducting a feasibility study over the next few months to determine whether a safe injection program would be supported in the London region.

Prolific drug use prompted health officials to study a safe injection program

Dr. Thomas Kerr is a professor in the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia, and the director of the urban health research initiative at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. (University of British Columbia)

More than 2.5 million needles are handed out to drug users each year in London, Ont., making the city second to only Vancouver when it comes to publicly funded needle use in Canada.

Prolific drug use in the region prompted health officials to consider introducing a safe injection program aimed at preventing overdoses and the spread of diseases.

Researchers are conducting a feasibility study over the next few months to determine whether a safe injection program would be supported in the London region.

Seeing the prevalence of drug use put the Middlesex London Health Unit on high alert.

"It's a wake-up call," said Dr. Chris Mackie, the medical health officer for the health unit. "We've been working on the issue of injection drug use, and more broadly on addictions for some time now because of that."

London design

Research being done in London is similar to studies done in Toronto and Ottawa, where safe injection sites were recommended several years ago. The models proposed for those cities were vastly different from the site in Vancouver, where one facility caters to a large concentration of users.

The proposed models for Ottawa and Toronto suggested creating several sites to provide greater access for users who are dispersed throughout those cities.

One of the researchers working on the feasibility study in London, says it is important to come up with a London model that is supported by the community. Dr. Thomas Kerr, a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, has spent years studying safe injection sites in Vancouver and around the world.

"We're really conducting the preliminary research to determine if there is a need," he told CBC News. "If we approach this from a scientific perspective and try to implement innovative, but evidence-based programs, hopefully, we can, not only improve public health, but also save money."

Early opposition

Phase one of the feasibility study includes surveying injection drug users to find out if they would actually use such a facility. The second phase will focus on consultation with local politicians, healthcare professionals, private businesses and police.

Opposition is a common hurdle health officials have to deal with early on in the process, Kerr explained.   

"Typically, people who know very little about these facilities are frequently opposed and, as people learn more about them, they become much more accepting," he said.

He used the Vancouver site as a prime example of how support for these facilities can shift.

"Over time, public support for the facility has grown immensely," Kerr said. "That's largely because the benefits are clear and many of the fears people had about these facilities just did not play out."

With files from Afternoon Drive