In the wake of a study of Vancouver injection drug users that found users who have difficulty shooting up are more likely to contract the HIV virus, a Vancouver drug users' group has begun a program to assist them. While Vancouver has a government-approved safe injection site in the Downtown Eastside, workers there potentially face drug trafficking charges if they assist drug users in shooting up.
VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, announced last week that it had created an "injecting support team" to "provide education and support" for people who need help shooting-up. The group, which has been a model of user activism for years, acted in response to a study from the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS that shows people who need help shooting up are twice as likely to contract the HIV virus. Some 40% of users at the safe injection site reported needing such assistance. According to the study, women and youthful drug injectors are most likely to need help in shooting up. Some users are paralyzed, some are blind, some need help finding usable veins, and others need help because they chose to shoot in their jugular veins.
According to VANDU, which is seeking a change in the regulations governing Insite, the city's safe injection site, drug injectors who need help shooting up are forced into the city's alleyways and often have to pay others -- in drugs or cash -- to help them inject. "We are tired of waiting for something to be done about this problem," said Diane Tobin, a member of the VANDU injecting team. "These people are at extreme high risk for HIV infection, and they have no where to go to get helped in a safe way since they cannot get help at the safe injection site. This also means that these people are often the victims of predators who take advantage of people who need help with injections."
While VANDU is calling on Health Canada to revise its regulations regarding the safe injection site, in the meanwhile they are, in typical VANDU fashion, pushing the envelope. "We are going to do what VANDU has always done, which is provide support and care to the drug users who most need our help," said VANDU member Alex Burnip. "We know that people who need help with injections are in a desperate situation with little support, so we will support them until Health Canada starts allowing these people to use the safe injection site." The report suggests that Health Canada revisit those guidelines, according to a press release posted on the Centre's web site summarizing the report's findings.
Needle sharing, which has a proven link to the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, is more common when users need help shooting up, Dr. Thomas Kerr, one of the study's authors, told the Vancouver Sun. "In Vancouver it helps explain why women are at increased risk for HIV infection, because they're twice as likely to engage in this behavior, and if you engage in this behavior you're twice as likely to become HIV infected," said Kerr.
The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority's Dr. David Marsh told the Sun the committee in charge of the safe injection site will review the study's findings this month and may recommend that Health Canada review its regulations. In the mean time, VANDU is both taking up the slack and turning up the heat on the authorities by ignoring the law and doing what needs to be done.