SCMP Thursday, August 23, 2001

Needle scheme urged for drug users


The Government has been urged to consider a needle-exchange scheme for drug users after a study found more than 40 per cent of addicts shared needles.
The study by the government-funded Community Planning Committee said police harassment of addicts who tried to buy clean needles was promoting the dangerous practice, which can help spread HIV and hepatitis C.
A team of academics, doctors, outreach workers and former drug addicts asked 254 drug users about their needle-sharing history. Forty-one per cent said they had shared needles, 30 per cent said they did so rarely, and 11 per cent sometimes or frequently.
The report recommended a needle-exchange programme, saying such schemes had succeeded in Australia, Canada and Europe. "Legal and easy access to sterile equipment would promote safer behaviour by intravenous drug users, as evidenced in several studies in the United States and Thailand," it said. "Decriminalisation of the possession of injecting equipment would permit . . . clean-needle programmes."
Fifty-five of those questioned said they shared needles because they had run out and 27 said it was inconvenient to buy one. Sixty per cent of those who claimed to have shared needles had never been tested for HIV.
Needle-sharing was more common among those aged 30 to 50, said Edmond Tong Tak-fai, a team member who is also an instructor of nursing and health science at Polytechnic University.
Mr Tong said the working group felt that unless laws were changed to decriminalise possession of injecting equipment, it would be difficult to implement a needle-exchange programme.
Because it could be illegal to possess a sterile needle without a doctor's prescription, drug users were "too scared to carry clean needles around", the team said.
A former drug user and member of the team said police harassed suspected drug users trying to buy needles.
The report will be presented at a Community Planning Forum on Sunday.