Needle drop-off site unsafe, residents say

By Caroline Dobuzinskis

A fixed van stop at the Somerset West Community Health Centre to distribute needles to intravenous drug users is unsafe, say nearby residents.

Angela Ierullo, a resident of Young Street, is opposed to the needle distribution program, saying there has been a lack of public consultation about the van stop site.

“This is a safety issue for the children and the community at large,” said Ierullo at a public meeting held by the public health department to evaluate the stop. “The van does not follow drug users to see if they will act violent or aggressive.”

According to Rita Pettes, acting supervisor of the HIV prevention program with the health department, the van does not attract drug users from outside the area but serves clients already in the community. She says safety concerns, such as discarded needles, are dealt with through clean-ups conducted by van workers every morning around the Somerset stop.

“We would like our clients (drug users who use the needle distribution service) to come to a more fixed site because there is a longer time to do some more particular counselling,” she says.

Funded by the city and the province, needle distribution has been a mobile public health service to the drug-using community since 1991. This year, from April 30 to Sept. 30, the van made regular 30-minute stops between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. in the parking lot of the Somerset West Community Health Centre on the corner of Eccles and Booth streets.

“We recognize that the client population we see are not in recovery but are actively using (intravenous drugs),” said Jackie Arthur, needle exchange project officer. “This is a first step, but is not meant to solve the drug-use problem.”

In addition to providing and collecting needles, public health workers in the van also test for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, counsel clients, and give health referrals. During the five-month period, the van made 133 stops in the Somerset Health Centre parking lot and had 65 visits.The van also made 2,100 stops for drug users who met the van as it followed its usual route from the west end of the city to Vanier. Clients can contact the van to arrange a meeting place.

At the Somerset van stop site, one HIV test and one hepatitis B test were conducted. Longer visits are important because testing for diseases usually occur once trust has been established with health workers. HIV levels in the Ottawa have stabilized since the start of the needle exchange program, Pettes says.

But rates of HIV infection in Ottawa remain the highest in the province, says Lynne Leonard, epidemiology researcher at the University of Ottawa.

Somerset West Health Centre is currently working on a communications plan to explain the program to the community. So far, the public health department says it has not received any negative responses concerning the van stop.

“I think there has to be a balance between getting the information to the community and protecting the confidentiality of our clients,” said Arthur. “I think that can be done.”

The issue: The safety of a needle exchange program at the Somerset West Community Health Centre.

What’s New: The Centre released a report on the results of a five-month project to have a fixed van stop to distribute needles in its parking lot.

What It Means: The stop is opposed by some members of the community but the Health Centre says its important to deliver important services to its clients.

What’s Next: Reports and information of the stop will be presented to the program’s review board and distributed to the community. The board will decide whether to continue to offer a fixed stop at its next meeting.