Needle exchange programme marks 21 years of success

  • 19/05/2009

New Zealand is credited as one of the first countries in the world to introduce a needle exchange programme, a facility where intravenous drug users can swap their used needles and syringes for sterile ones.

Today marks its 21st birthday.

When Nightline arrived at the Wellington Needle Exchange it had been a quiet day, but 500 needles had already passed over the counter - and that was before the after work rush.

"The stereotype of the dirty junkie exists, but I think that's actually quite far from reality," says manager Charles Henderson.

"People in suits and overcoats who come in on their way home from work, and all sorts of things like that," says Dana Demilon, of the clientele. "It's not just people that you would see on the streets - in fact most people aren't actually on the streets."

It is hard to pin an exact figure on the number of intravenous drug users in New Zealand, but surveys show 2 percent of Kiwis inject or have injected in the past. That is around 85,000 people who potentially benefit from the needle exchange programme.

"It's guaranteed sterile, it's safe, clean and really with blood-borne viruses the way they are, I mean I have noticed a lot less people dropping dead, shall we say," says Shaun, a user.

And these days New Zealand boasts one of the lowest rates of HIV and AIDS in the world.

"The incidence is nowhere what it might have been, and what was expected," says Kate Leslie, NZ AIDS Foundation, "and it's very small, so this has been a very successful undertaking."

But is it an undertaking that is encouraging drug use by saying it is okay to use?

"Drug use is actually part of the human condition," says Mr Henderson. "It has been around for many, many years, and I think that by providing the mechanism of needles and syringes doesn't empower somebody to inject drugs - that decision's been made beforehand."

And it has made a marked difference on the way drugs were used in the past.

"There would be a lot of people reusing needles over and over and over again, having to sharpen them on match box flint," says Shaun.

A function was held in Auckland tonight to mark 21 years.

Despite much lower HIV and AIDS numbers amongst intravenous drug users, hepatitis numbers are still alarmingly high, so while there is some cause to celebrate one in 12 people are still living with the hepatitis virus.

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source: newshub archive