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Protesters surround the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver before a visit by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010. (Reuters)
Protesters surround the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver before a visit by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010. (Reuters)

Julio Montaner

Dying for a change on safe-injection site Add to ...

A health-care facility that saves lives and prevents the transmission of deadly diseases should be hailed as an innovative advancement in medical care - not a political football to be punted around by the government of the day.

Unfortunately, however, the federal Conservatives continue to play deadly games with Insite, North America's first supervised injection site. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservatives have consistently ignored scientific evidence showing that Insite reduces behaviour that causes HIV and other infections, increases uptake into detox, and decreases public disorder.

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And now a landmark study undertaken by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and published by the international medical journal The Lancet shows that Insite also dramatically reduces overdose deaths.

The evidence is absolutely clear: Insite provides essential, life-saving benefits to people who desperately need them and improves community health and safety in Vancouver's poorest urban neighbourhood. The only roadblock standing in the way of offering similar benefits in other Canadian cities and to people in need throughout the country is the federal Conservative Party.

Mr. Harper and his team of moralistic crusaders have done everything in their power to shut down Insite, including challenging court decisions that favour the continued operation of the facility and commissioning biased and misleading pseudo-research to discredit the program.

As the Conservatives' court challenges slowly wind their way through the legal system, the resultant uncertainty has two debilitating results: It ensures that Insite remains unable to grow and meet the demand for its services, and it prevents other Canadian jurisdictions from establishing desperately needed supervised injection sites of their own.

The Conservatives' rejection of these sites is costing lives. Insite is a pilot facility with only 12 injection seats that operates at full capacity. Health-care providers at the facility supervise more than 500 injections a day. Significantly, not a single overdose death has been recorded at Insite - though thousands of overdoses have occurred at the facility since it opened in 2003.

Outside the facility is a more sobering story: The neighbourhood surrounding Insite has an estimated 5,000 injection drug users. Obviously, many of the people in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside who want to use the facility can't. Deadly diseases continue to spread, and overdose deaths continue to accumulate.

Supervised injection sites are not a panacea for all the issues associated with injection drug use. They should be considered a critical piece of a comprehensive strategy to deal with addiction and its related ills. These should include services such as needle exchange, decriminalization of illicit drug users, medicalization of illicit drugs, low threshold detox, supportive housing and retraining initiatives tailored to the needs of people who use drugs.

Rather than challenging the legitimacy of a life-saving health-care facility that prevents the transmission of deadly diseases, we should be implementing supervised injection sites across the country. For many Canadians, having such a facility nearby and its services readily available is a matter of life and death.

Canadians must tell the federal Conservatives to support evidence-based health and drug policies and to drop their court challenge to Insite. People shouldn't have to pay with their lives for misguided policies based on the moral convictions of a comparative few.

Julio Montaner is director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and past president of the International AIDS Society.

 

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