The Saskatchewan Party government is limiting the number of needles given out in its needle exchange programs, despite an earlier government-ordered review that found the existing system helps curb disease and reduce health care costs.
Premier Brad Wall said capping how many needles can be handed over at one time means addicts may visit health workers at exchange sites more often, creating more opportunities for them to seek treatment.
"They can be giving out literally handfuls ( of needles ) at a time in exchange for handfuls," Wall told reporters in advance of a throne speech, which outlined the pledge to change the provincially funded needle exchange programs delivered in some health regions.
There needs to be more emphasis on providing intervention so people "don't need the needles in the first place," the premier said.
However, no new funding is being provided at this time, Wall said. But the government will re-establish a stand-alone addictions agency rather than continue to house the service within the Ministry of Health.
The move to limit clean needle distribution was panned by some community groups in Regina and Saskatoon that said the province is only opening the door to more exposure to diseases such as AIDS.
"It's frustrating to see politics kind of in the mix," said Shawn Fraser, executive director of Carmichael Outreach, which hosts a needle exchange delivered by the health region. "There are people that will contract deadly diseases if we don't help them," Fraser said, adding that also impacts the health care system.
Margaret Akan of All Nations Hope AIDS Network said the government is simply creating barriers to people accessing clean needles.
"They're making these policies and rules at a high level. They need to get down to the grassroots and see what's really going on," Akan said.
AIDS Saskatoon said in a statement that it was "incredibly disappointed" with the throne speech, calling restrictions on access to new needles a "recipe for disaster."
A 100-page report commissioned by the Ministry of Health and released in February estimated that needle exchange programs reduce the transmission of HIV by onethird, and mean an estimated annual savings in health-care costs in Saskatchewan of $4 million.
But said Wall rising HIV rates in Saskatchewan actually reinforce the government's move to change the needle exchange system. Needle exchanges here may be "biased toward supply" rather than intervention, he said.
"We are well over - well over - almost six times greater in terms of the amount of needles we will give out in a Regina or a Saskatoon versus for example Calgary or versus even the city of Winnipeg," he said.
Wall said that comparison is a concern, even though a recent review stated the most commonly used injection drugs in Saskatchewan sees the average addict use 20 or more needles a day, unlike drugs popular in other centres that don't involve frequent injections.
The Regina-Qu'Appelle health region distributed about two million needles last year with a return rate of over 90 per cent, but it still left 100,000 needles that weren't returned through the exchange system, Wall said, adding too many parks in the major cities are "littered with dirty needles."
Wall acknowledged there have been zero reports in Saskatchewan of someone becoming infected due to a prick from a discarded needle. But that doesn't mean that it couldn't happen, he said.
October 22, 2009