A client prepares to shoot up at the Insite supervised injection site in Vancouver. Fraser Health has no immediate plans to pursue such a site but wants to bring clean needle exchanges to Abbotsford.

Abbotsford overdoses cited in call for needle reform

Fraser Health would like to double number of clean syringes it hands out to addicts across the region

Abbotsford’s high rate of drug overdose hospitalizations should prompt the city to drop its ban on needle exchanges, say Fraser Health officials.

About 29 residents a year are admitted due to overdoses, resulting in a hospitalization rate above that of Surrey, Burnaby or the regional average.

“To say the drug problem hasn’t reached out into the Valley, I don’t think you can say that based on these statistics,” said David Portesi, Fraser Health’s director of health promotion and prevention.

The health authority estimates there are 280 to 470 injection drug users in Abbotsford, but cautions that may be low based on the city’s high rates of Hepatitis C, drug overdose fatalities and drug crime offences.

Portesi will meet Abbotsford officials in May in hopes of persuading them to rescind a 2005 bylaw against harm reduction services that some politicians say promote drug use.

“It’s our belief that the lack of harm reduction services play a part in those elevated rates,” he said.

Abbotsford is the only city in the region that blocks efforts to prevent the spread of disease among injection drug users, although Portesi doubts the Abbotsford bylaw is even legal.

“That would be a local municipality interfering with the provision of a medical service by the health authority,” he said.

“That said, we want to move forward in partnership with Abbotsford.”

Partner agencies serving New Westminster/Burnaby, Surrey and Chilliwack already distribute 400,000 clean needles a year to addicts in the region, but Portesi says that number is too low given the health region’s population.

“We’d like to double that to around 800,000 by 2014,” he said, adding an extension of service to Abbotsford would help.

A combination of mobile vans and fixed exchange sites are used to distribute needles, as well as rubber tubes that serve as protective mouthpieces for crack pipe users.

Asked if Fraser Health might try to cut overdose deaths by launching a supervised injection site, like Vancouver’s Insite clinic, Portesi said it’s a longer term possibility but not an immediate priority.

“We would move forward with the utmost care in working with the municipalities in instituting something like that,” he stressed.

If Fraser Health succeeds in plugging its big harm reduction gap in Abbotsford, Portesi then plans to try to get clean needles distributed in area prisons to slow the transmission of HIV, Hepatitis C and other blood or bacterial infections there.

“Many of the inmates who are released often do settle in the Fraser East region,” he added.

In Surrey, needle exchange efforts focus on the Whalley area, but clients also come from Newton and Guildford.

New Westminster-based workers operate in Burnaby and the Tri-Cities as well, while counterparts in Chilliwack sometimes roam up the Valley as far as Boston Bar.

Between 2006 and 2010, New Westminster had the highest average number of per capita admissions to hospital for drug overdoses – 23.6 per 100,000 population – compared to 21.9 for Abbotsford, 17.3 for Surrey and 11.4 for Burnaby. The Fraser Health average was 16.9.

Death rates from overdoses in Abbotsford were 8.08 per 100,000 over a similar five-year period, compared to 9.01 in Surrey, 11.07 in New Westminster, 11.79 in Vancouver and 4.89 in Burnaby.

The Hepatitis C infection rate in Abbotsford in 2010 was 64.4 cases per 100,000, compared to a B.C. average of 54.9 and a national average of 33.7.