Technology & Science

Vancouver's safe injection site successful: study

It's unknown how Ottawa will react to a study that concludes the injection site is slowing down the spread of HIV and helping drug users quit their habits.

Top AIDS researcher suggests Harper government has 'profound bias' against site

Vancouver's safe injection site is slowing down the spread of HIV and helping drug users quit their habits, a new study finds — but an expert suggested that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government won't want to hear those results.

The study, whichappears Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, says the three-year-old Supervised Injection Site in the Downtown Eastside has beena great success.

The injection site, which drew about 5,000 users in its first year of operation, is a place where people can safely go to inject illegal drugs while being supervised by nurses.

"By all criteria, the Vancouver facility has both saved lives and contributed toward the decreased use of illicit drugs and the reduced spread of HIV infection and other blood-borne infections," Mark Wainberg, the director of the McGill University AIDS Centre in Montreal,wrote in a commentary published alongsidethe study.

The study — conducted by Dr. Evan Wood,a professor of epidemiology at the University of British Columbia, and his colleagues — found that drug users who visited the site at least once a week were more willing to enter detoxification programs.

The researchers alsofound that all users in the area, including those with HIV, have been sharing syringes less since the start of the injection site, which isthe first of its kind in North America.They have also engaged in other safe injection practices like using sterile water to formulate their drugs and swabbing alcohol on their skin.

Users wereless likely to overdose when they used the facility at least once a week, the study found.

Establish more sites, expert urges

Wainberg argued that the injection site should remain open. Hesaid the federal government should be drafting legislation to allow similar facilities to operate elsewhere in the country.

Wainberg criticized the federalConservative government, singling out Health Minister Tony Clement for cuttinga grant that would have allowed further study of the injection site — something Clement himself has said is necessary.

"Why would the government on the one hand announce that additional time is needed to study the potential success of the Vancouver safer injecting facility and on the other hand eliminate the funding needed for such evaluations?" wrote Wainberg, who is also a professor of medicine at McGill.

He also cited the Harper government's handling of an extension to the "waiver of law," which allows the site to operate withoutfear that the users or staffwill face criminal charges.

Wainberg pointed out that,in September,Harper's government refused a request to extend the waiver for3½more years, only agreeing to let it stay open until the end of 2007.

"One hopes that the current government under Stephen Harper, which has been in office since only February 2006, will be willing to learn and to revisit this issue," Wainberg wrote.

On Tuesday,the health ministersaid the current project will continue for 18 months and then all of the evidence will be weighed.

"I think it's important to have a diversity of research," Clement told a news conference in Ottawa.

Government accused of 'profound bias'

Meanwhile, one of Canada's foremost AIDS researchers accused the federal government of being against the injection site, saying he doubts Ottawa wants to hear that it has beenhaving a positive effect.

"I think that there is a profound bias in this administration," Dr. Julio Montaner, the director of B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, told CBC News in an interview tied to the release of the study.

"Unfortunately, no matter how many attempts we have made to have an intelligent and educated discussion about this issue, their principles stand in the way of evidence-based decision making,"said Montaner.

"And to me, that's unacceptable."

The injection site is operated by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority in partnership with the Portland Hotel Society and is funded by the federal and provincial governments.