Needle exchange part of the solution to a complex problem 

Over a four-year period (from 1996-2000) there were 103 new cases of Hepatitis C in the Sea to Sky corridor, in addition to six new cases of HIV.

"Basically even one new case is too many," said Amy Jolicoeur, a public health nurse in Squamish.

In an effort to curb these growing statistics and to help prevent the spread of communicable diseases, a needle exchange program has recently begun in the corridor.

"An active needle exchange can keep these numbers from multiplying," said Jolicoeur.

In its initial stages, the program will operate for two days out of the Coast Garibaldi Health Unit in Squamish. It will be open every Tuesday and Friday between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.

The program will eventually move to Whistler and Pemberton for one day each week in both towns.

"The whole rationale is harm reduction," said Jolicoeur. "We're concerned for the potential spread of communicable diseases through intravenous drug use."

The Sea to Sky program has been modelled after other successful needle exchanges around the province.

"(The program) is a respectful, confidential service," she said.

People can come to the health centre with dirty needles and in return, they are given clean needles.

"The needles are available on a one-to-one exchange basis," she said. "This keeps the community free of dirty needles."

There is a new needle exchange co-ordinator who is responsible for tapping into the community and advertising the services that are provided.

The co-ordinator will be on hand to council drug users and refer them for drug, alcohol and safe sex counselling if they so desire. A public nurse will also be available for HIV testing.

"The pressure isn't there," said Jolicoeur. "The materials, resources and the offer of these services is there."

The needle exchange was born out of the input from various community partners and stakeholders, including the RCMP and the Squamish General Hospital.

"It's about making the person as healthy as possible," said Jolicoeur. "It prevents the transmission of diseases when people are using a clean needle."

Needle exchange programs have suffered criticism in the past because they are seen as temporary solutions to deep-rooted socio-economic problems within the community.

"The long-term objective is that people need to get into treatment programs but that's not going to happen overnight. If you can't offer treatment to everybody then at least you can reduce the spread of blood-borne pathogens by providing clean needles," said Lorne Hildebrand, the marketing director for Edgewood-A Treatment Facility, a private treatment centre in the corridor.

He said that recent B.C. statistics show that one in every 10 people deals with some sort of drug use and abuse problem.

"The needle exchange program is a solution based on desperation," he said.

Hepatitis C in particular has seen a large increase in the community recently.

This disease affects the liver and is found in the blood of those who have the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Most people who have the disease will carry it for the rest of their lives, and many will develop a chronic infection.

"The real challenge is that both diseases are blood borne," said Dr. Mel Krajden, the director of B.C. Hepatitis Services with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

"The problem is when you share not only the needles but the crucibles or the cotton swabs, you have the risk of transmitting these viruses to other people," he said. "The needle exchange is trying to deal with at least one component. It is part of a solution to a very complicated problem."

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