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Concerned residents across the region are calling on the Northwestern Health Unit to change their needle exchange policy. A petition has been started in the area, as concerns about dirty needles being found in community areas continue.

The petition states that the bio-hazardous materials threaten the safety of children, pets and anyone who could come across them. The petition continues, saying that the health unit should re-evaluate its focus on providing harm reduction supplies to drug users. The petition suggests that clean needles should only be given out to those who return dirty needles to the health unit.

However, Gillian Lunny, the manager of sexual health and harm reduction programs at the health unit, says their data shows their current program is sufficient, and the petition’s suggestion has previously been looked at and discarded.

“Needle exchange programs are a global initiative to help reduce the spread of blood-borne illnesses, such as HIV and hepatitis. Evidence is very clear that when they share needles, it often leads to outbreaks of those infections. Needle exchange programs are very evidence-based,” Lunny said.

She added that health unit’s have been studying needle exchange programs since the 1990s.

“Why a needle exchange program doesn’t have a one-to-one exchange is a very common question that we get," Lunny continued. "The evidence has been very clear. Lots of studies have been done into large communities that introduced a one-to-one exchange program – notably Ottawa in the 1990’s – and it led to the sharing of needles.

“When someone can’t get access to clean needles, they’re likely going to use someone else’s needle. It totally goes against our program," she added. "The evidence is clear. HIV rates go up. It’s a stone-age approach. No one does it anymore, due to the very clear harms that the change leads to.”

Staff at the health unit have looked at a deposit program, which would offer 10 or 25 cents for each needle returned. However, people might return unused needles for money. Programs in other areas found participants didn't carry the used needles in a safe manner, which might lead to some health and safety issues.

Lunny added that the petition states that the Northwestern Health Unit gave out approximately 800,000 needles in the Rainy River District, and that 60 per cent of those were properly disposed of. Lunny says that those statistics are both false.

However, that doesn’t mean that the health-unit is resting on their laurels, and that they are always looking at new ways to help reduce the danger of used needles in the community.

“What I do understand, is the attempt to find ways for needles to stop being on the ground. We don’t like it either. We work very hard with the public, schools, community partners, our clients, police to help educate people on what to do if they find a needle,” Lunny emphasized.

“We have implemented mountable sharp containers indoors and outdoors. We give them to any organizations that need them. We provide safe needle pick-up kits, and we will also respond to calls if everyone finds them on the ground and we will pick them up. We’re always looking at ways to reduce the amount of needles found on the ground. If we don’t know about the needle on the ground, there’s nothing that we can do about it,” she continued.

The introduction of the mountable sharps container for the storing of used needles increased the number of needles returned by about 25 per cent in 2016, in the region. Emergency personnel responding to a fire at the Hing's Block four years ago faced hazards, due to the high number of used needles. Firefighters who get stuck with a needle have to go through a lengthy and stressful protocol, which can take weeks or  months to complete

Lunny added that the health unit has worked with community organizations to figure out common areas where needles are being found. The health unit will also track any calls regarding used needles, and will record any information regarding where the needles were found, how many were found, if they were used, and if they were capped or not.

“A lot of people tend to see things on social media, and aren’t really looking at the information. We do want to hear about found needles. Posting on social media doesn’t help out the community. We have to know about it, so that we can respond. It only helps us if we know about it. We do want to respond, and we do have the resources to do that.”

Lunny reminds residents that the health unit is more than willing to provide Harm Reduction Kits to organizations, workplaces and the public to help support safe disposal of needles, and to minimize the risk of infections. The program can also provide workplace presentations.

If residents do have to pick up a used needle themselves, the health unit offered safety tips to residents.

- If possible, use gloves and tongs to pick up the needle, 
- Never put the cap back on a needle,
- Place the needle in a hard-sided plastic container, tightly seal and label “Needle”,
- Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer after picking up a needle,
- Return the needle to your local NWHU office,
- Never put needles down the toilet, in drains or in the garbage,
- Call your local NWHU office to pick-up needles safely if you cannot.

harmreductionkitThe Northwestern Health Unit has Harm Reduction Kits available, for those people who are comfortable cleaning up the needles themselves. Photo courtesy of the Northwestern Health Unit.
The petition can be found below.

For more information:
NWHU Needle Distribution – Petition
Health unit wins over residents after needle exchange meeting
NWHU – Needle Exchange program

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