Vancouver Study: Suburban Drug Users at Risk to Share Needles: Downtown Users Tend to Use Needle Exchange

Findings published in last week in the international journal AIDS indicate that the Vancouver drug users most likely to engage in sharing needles are single, young, male, live outside the city and get their needles from sources other than Vancouver's needle exchange program. The least likely to engage in sharing needles are older, married users who live in the "Downtown Eastside HIV epicenter," the study said.

The study drew drug users from the Vancouver Injection Drug Users Study, which tracks the lives and the health of drug users in the city's Downtown Eastside, the largest community of injection drug users in the country. In interviews conducted between January 1999 and October 2000, 776 drug users were asked about their drug using behavior. Fourteen percent of the drug users were found to be "high risk" users who shared needles. The study, which began in 1996, is supported by a grant from the United States National Institutes of Health.

City residents tended to get their needles exclusively from the needle exchange, which is run by the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society and uses a traveling van and a storefront office. There appeared to be no connection with ethnicity, education, gay or bisexual orientation, unstable housing, employment, or frequency of heroin use.

Evan Wood, the study's chief writer and researcher at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said the findings send a clear message: "Yes, the needle exchange has been effective. But we need more action in harm reduction."

Wood and other researchers began to look for a reason that one-quarter of drug users in the Downtown Eastside were infected with HIV, considering that a needle exchange program had operated there since 1989. They found that people from outside the community said they are more likely to share needles. Wood suggested that the most needed improvement would be needle exchange programs in areas outside the Downtown Eastside, safe-injection sites and expanded access to the existing exchange.

In a related study from the Centre, results confirm that women who inject drugs in Vancouver are becoming infected with HIV at a startlingly faster rate -- 42 percent -- than the men they share time, needles and sex with.

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