The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) claims that Fraser Health Authority, despite being the first health authority in B.C. to adopt harm reduction policies towards addiction and mental health issues, has the most dismal harm reduction practices in the province.
“They have this gold medal standard in their policy of harm reduction. It’s just written to the best practices: they’ve been calling for safe-injection sites and all the rest of it,” says VANDU member Dave Murray. “But in practice, they don’t do it. In practice, it’s just horrible.”
According to data from the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), Fraser Health distributed 385,000 needles from 2009-10, while Vancouver Coastal Health distributed 3.2 million needles. VANDU estimates both areas have a drug using population of 14,000 to 16,000 people, meaning drug users in the Fraser Valley have access to 0.29 needles per user, while Vancouver has 2.95 needles per user.
VANDU says the lack of clean needles has caused the highest hepatitis C rates in the province from 1995-2009, according to statistics they gathered from BCCDC. Unlike HIV/ AIDS, hepatitis C is only transmitted through blood and considered a marker for intravenous drug use.
Fraser Health doesn’t deny its needle numbers are low, but says their drug user population is more spread out than Vancouver’s, requiring them to fund services in more than one area, including two harm reduction vans—one covering Chilliwack and the other Burnaby-New Westminster—and a stationary needle distribution in Surrey, open seven days a week from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
However, drug users in Surrey claim the distribution centre is operating as an exchange, where users are required to return dirty needles in order to get clean ones. It's a practice that creates roadblocks for drug users who need to access clean rigs.
“You have to exchange one-for-one, you can’t just go in and get one,” says Theresa, a drug user living in Surrey who travels to Vancouver once a month to get clean needles instead of getting them in her neighbourhood. “One time I went in there and brought in 147 [needles], and I asked for 10 1ccs to give [out] to people. [They] told me not to give them out, to make [the others] come to the needle exchange.”
Despite living in the area for a year and a half, Theresa only found out last week there are four people in the neighbourhood who have extra rigs supplied by the centre to give out when they are closed. She was also unaware their weekend hours had recently been extended.
Dave Portesi, public health director for Fraser Health, says they want to expand their harm reduction services, particularly in cities with no services whatsoever, but there are factors other than funding to contend with.
“There can be some local resistance, because I think there can be some false assumptions out there of what needle distribution brings to a community,” he says.
Abbotsford is one of those communities, where bylaws prevent needle distribution and safe- injection sites. Megaphone contacted the City of Abbotsford for comment, but they did not return the call before deadline.
Portesi says Fraser Health is currently trying to find peer groups in the region to partner with in Abbotsford, like they did with South Fraser Community Services Society in Surrey, to offer more services, as well as help them convince the City of Abbotsford to change their bylaws.
But it’s not enough for Murray, who, along with VANDU, has been trying to start drug user groups in Abbotsford and Surrey. They have been providing their own harm reduction supplies in the two cities.
“Their mandate is to secure the health of everybody in the region, they’re the guys with the stable full of lawyers that could go to fight the City of Abbotsford on that,” says Murray. “We’ve heard horrendous stories, individual stories about people having to share needles and pick up needles and all kinds of really gross stories that shouldn’t be happening in 2011."
Photo by Dave Blumenkrantz