Needles linked to exchanges

Purpose Society health van volunteer Elvis Scott at the society’s New Westminster headquarters. - TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO
Purpose Society health van volunteer Elvis Scott at the society’s New Westminster headquarters.
— image credit: TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO

Port Coquitlam bylaw officials believe a new needle-exchange program launched by the Fraser Health Authority last summer is likely to blame for a dramatic increase in the number of discarded syringes turning up in city parks.

Dan Scoones, PoCo’s manager of bylaw enforcement, said it is not uncommon for his officers to find upwards of 30 to 40 needles when they break up homeless camps.

He added that the recreation department has also seen an increase in the number of needles being found in parks and other public spaces.

“Starting around July or August, we started noticing more needles and we weren’t sure why,” Scoones said. “Then we kind of figured out [the exchange program] was probably the reason.”

Since June, the Purpose Society based out of New Westminster has been contracted by the Fraser Health Authority to operate a needle exchange in the Tri-Cities.

(In fact, on July 29, The Tri-City News featured the program in a front-page story.)

Drug users and those in need of health and hygienic supplies such as condoms, bandages and alcohol swabs can call the van’s mobile phone or visit wherever they see it parked in the Tri-Cities. Along with clean needles, the truck also offers crack-pipe mouthpieces and sterilized water to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.

Dawn Embree, the Purpose Society’s executive director, said program volunteers strive to get as many dirty needles back from users as possible. But she also noted that Fraser Health’s policy is to give clean needles to any person who needs one.

“If someone should come and they don’t have a needle to exchange and they need a clean needle, we will give them one,” she said. “But we try, wherever possible, to do the exchange.”

In June, the first month the service was fully operational, the Purpose Society distributed 325 clean needles and took in 100 used ones. Those numbers increased in July to 495 distributed and 157 collected.

PoCo Fire Chief Nick Delmonico said he would be meeting with Fraser Health Authority representatives to discuss the issue of increasing discards in the city. He said many city staffers were unaware the needle-exchange program existed, adding that more work needs to be done to co-ordinate with other initiatives operating in the municipality.

“We want to find out why and how it is running,” he said. “We can’t have stuff being run without us knowing what is going on.”

Roy Thorpe-Dorward, a senior public affairs person with Fraser Health, admitted the organization could have done a better job of communicating its intentions with the city. He added the health authority is committed to working with municipalities and local stakeholders.

“There does seem to have been a bit of a gap in taking information back to city council, particularly Port Coquitlam,” he said. “What we are doing right now is working with the Purpose Society to bridge that gap.”

Despite the communication issues, Thorpe-Dorward said the program will benefit the Tri-Cities and improve the health of drug users in the region. On average, 85% of needles are returned to the truck and studies have shown similar programs help dramatically reduce instances of HIV infection and hepatitis.

The program has even been shown to reduce the number of injection substance use in public places.

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