The Northwestern Health Unit knows about needles.
It’s a subject that comes up a lot around town in recent years. As winter’s snow disappears, a season’s worth of discarded needles are revealed. There are posts on Facebook about finding used needles on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. The fear is that anyone could be enjoying a day at the park or on the playground and come into contact with a needle in the worst possible way.
Christy Herr and Shannon Grynol know about these fears. As public health nurses with the Northwestern Health Unit, they know about needles.
“The NWHU has the needle exchange program,” Herr said.
“It’s mandated by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. The whole basis of the program is to hand out clean sterile equipment, as well as needles to those who are using substances.”
While it may seem counter-intuitive at first glance to give out needles to those dealing with drug addictions, there are documented benefits.
Grynol explained that the World Health Organization recognizes harm reduction programs like needle exchange programs as best practice and key components in the prevention of blood-borne disease transmission.
There is also a strong argument for distribution style programs, like the one offered by the NWHU, over more restrictive programs, like a 1:1 exchange where people who want one clean needle must return one used needle.
“The research that shows other communities in the past have had 1:1 exchange, like Ottawa in the ’90s, and HIV and Hep C rates skyrocketed,” Grynol said.
“Evidence shows less people access the 1:1 exchange. A lot of people are affected by different social determinants of health. They might be homeless, they might not have transportation, and so it’s not always feasible for them to be returning needles.”
Grynol said that the added hurdle of requiring a used needle to get a clean one meant that users were less likely to use the program and instead just share needles, which led to the marked increase in infections.
Anyone who wants clean, sterile syringes and equipment can get them at the NWHU.
“The whole reason for that is we don’t want blood-borne infections to be around in the community,” said Herr.
“So [the exchange programs] actually end up decreasing rates of Hepatitis C and HIV, for example.”
But the role of the health unit doesn’t end with the distribution of sterile equipment. They also offer several methods for those who are in possession of used needles, or who come across them by accident, to safely dispose of them.
“We have sharps containers in different sizes that we can offer people,” Grynol said.
“We also have mountable sharps containers in community organizations and bathrooms. We have outdoor mountables and we also provide cards for people who are accessing the needle exchange program to let them know where the outdoor sharps containers are, so if it is after hours there are places for them to dispose of their needles.
“We also tell people that for whatever reason they can’t get back here to call us and we’ll come pick them up,” Grynol continued.
“And then of course the community, we’re always encouraging them to call us if they find a needle, let us know where it is so we can come and get it too.”
The health unit provides safe pickup kits to anyone in the community, free of charge. The kits are comprised of a solid-walled disposal container, a pair of barbecue tongs, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
“The whole basis of this is that we don’t want anyone touching the needle if they find one out in the community,” Herr explained.
“So they can come and get these kits, and then they will use the tongs to pick up and safely dispose of the needle and bring it back to the NWHU.”
The Northwestern Health Unit also has feet on the ground looking for improperly discarded needles, and works with community partners to help where they can.
“[The Bear Clan Patrol] really help out, especially because we’re only open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” said Herr.
“So if someone does find a needle after hours or on the weekend, then we do encourage them to call the Bear Clan, and they’ve been a great partner. They helped us figure out where to put the outdoor sharps containers around the community as well.”
Herr explained that the Town of Fort Frances also keeps an eye on the outdoor sharps containers and will either let the NWHU know when one is full, or bring a full container in to exchange for an empty one.
“They definitely are being used, which is great,” she added.
Education is also a key component of the harm reduction strategy. Herr and Grynol travel to schools and organizations like the Town of Fort Frances and teach those in attendance about how to safely dispose of a found needle, or what to do in the event they don’t feel comfortable disposing of the needle themselves.
But Herr and Grynol stressed that the services offered by the NWHU aren’t just about handing out needles and drug equipment. The overall goal of the harm reduction programs is health care.
“It’s about building those relationships with the clients,” Herr explained.
“A lot of times, too, we hand out granola bars, water, toiletries, and when they’re ready to maybe move on to going to treatment, we’re a lot of times their first access to that contact, to help them with those kinds of supports.”
Herr and Grynol said that a public forum held last year helped to curb the spread of misinformation around the district, as well as raised some ideas for new methods in approaching the problem from the community, however, they say there is still stigma and discrimination surrounding injection drug users.
“I think a lot of times people just look at the addiction itself,” Herr said.
“We definitely have to look at it as, these people are still human beings and they deserve to have effective accessible health care, just like any other individual out in the community.”
The harm reduction programs offered by the Northwestern Health Unit can’t stop people from improperly discarding their needles throughout town, and drug addiction is an issue on an international scale.
However, there is research that shows that needle exchange programs like the one offered here in town result in a higher number of returned or safely disposed of needles than in areas without these programs, or where the requirements are more strict.
The NWHU and their community partners try to do what they can to limit the risk to the community while also being available to those who need them.
“It’s not the solution to cure addiction,” Grynol explained.
“We’re just trying to meet people where they’re at and help prevent any further damage to their health.”