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A 16-year-old boys shoots-up ( injects ) heroin behind First United Church in Vancouver April 20, 2011 before heading to the churchês sanctuary to sleep for the night. TThe century old church now serves as a homeless shelter. First United Church church's sanctuary, where pews once where are now gone, replaced by bunk beds. The gym serves as a dining room, where upwards of 150 people each night eat in two and sometimes three shifts.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

People aged 15 to 25 make up the bulk of new injection drug users in Vancouver, according to a recent study by a team of B.C. researchers, even as overall user rates have dropped over the past several years.

The findings suggest the city needs stronger addiction programs to reach at-risk children before they spiral into hardened drug addicts.

"I would like to see the expansion of evidence-based programs, particularly addiction treatment for youth," said Kora DeBeck, who will be presenting the team's research at next week's International AIDS Conference in Washington. "That [would make them] available and accessible and easy for youth to access at any point in their addiction."

The study by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS followed more than 300 street-involved youth from 2005 to 2010. Researchers discovered that after experimenting with drug injection, 74 per cent of the at-risk children became regular users, injecting at least once a week.

While youth demonstrated they were more likely to become regular users, the centre's other data showed a clear decrease in drug injection user rates across the city. That is because strong addiction programming already exists for adults, Dr. DeBeck said. Now she wants the same for youth, starting with expanding evidence-based treatment and interventions, she said.

"We really need to read the report and see what it says," said Anna Marie D'Angelo, Vancouver Coastal Health's senior media relations officer, who had not yet reviewed the study. "But we have a myriad of programs for youth in different areas, including drug prevention."

The health authority has a $2.8-billion annual budget, which includes funds for mental health and addiction.

But it needs to be smart about how it invests that money, said Evan Wood, a senior author of the study. He acknowledged that Vancouver Coastal Health has already made fairly substantial commitments in some necessary areas, such as early childhood intervention programs. The study found more than 80 per cent of youth who were victims of childhood physical abuse became regular drug injectors.

However, Vancouver Coastal Health is still not addressing the larger problems, Dr. Wood said. "The biggest issue is the lack of trained physicians and allied health staff to bring evidence-based care to people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction."

To help fix this problem, he said, he is working to create a local fellowship for Vancouver physicians for specialty training in addiction medicine. He also wants clinically proven drug treatments – some of which are widely used in the United States – to be made available in Canada, he said.

For those who work with youth, the study's findings may not be as clear. Michelle Fortin is the executive director of Watari, a youth and family community services provider in the Downtown Eastside.

"We're not seeing an increase in IV drug users," said Ms. Fortin, who has not read the study. "What we're seeing an increase in is prescription drug use."

She worries youth drug addiction policy can be too reactive to studies, she said, and forget to address consistently proven issues such as isolation and family troubles.