Mission Community Services Society collected nearly twice the amount of needles they distributed last year, a positive sign its harm-reduction program is working as intended.
A total of 35,000 needles were given out, and 65,000 were brought back, said Tyler Weatherup, manager of housing at MCSS.
“Those are two really important metrics,” Weatherup said. “That means that people are disposing of them safely.”
Harm-reduction services, which offer intravenous drug users a safe supply of needles to prevent the transmission of blood-borne infection like HIV and Hepatitis C, were banned by the City Mission until 2014.
It wasn’t until 2019 that MCSS received its first year of funding from Fraser Health for their program, Weatherup said; before that, “everything was underground.”
“I’ve been in this field for 10 years, and prior to harm reduction being widely available, it would be common to see people using dirty supplies in unclean and unsafe and undignified places,” he said.
“I’ve seen amputation as a result of blood-borne infection that could have been prevented.”
Needle-exchange programs have largely been successful in reducing blood-borne infections, according to data from the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
In 2005, 34 new cases of HIV in the Fraser Health region were recorded among people who use drugs; by 2018, that number had fallen to just four.
Weatherup said that not providing a safe supply to drug users has significant collateral costs on the medical system, such as treating an HIV patient’s treatment for the rest of their life.
He added the program has helped MCSS make in-roads into the drug-using community, which in turn, offers supports and help in other areas of their lives.
“That didn’t exist five years ago,” he said. “That was catalyzed through the harm reduction programming.”
The biggest misconception about the program is that the program enables people to use drugs, when in reality it has never acted as a deterrent.
“It just makes it safer.”
He said the biggest obstacle now is fostering understanding from the general public.