Thursday, 10th October, 2013
By By Darrin Manuel
Hard drugs appear to have gained a foothold in the Far West, causing an explosion in Hepatitis C cases and a massive spike in the demand for clean syringes.
More than 360,000 syringes were distributed by the Far West Local Health District (FWLHD) from July 2012 to June 2013 - an increase of over 150,000 from the same time last year.
The syringes were distributed via free “fitpack” kits which contain five syringes, a disposable spoon, a vial of sterile water and five alcohol sterile swabs.
The FWLHD has stepped up its efforts to provide access to the safe injecting packs after instances of Hepatitis C tripled between 2010 and 2012.
This includes installation of a needle and fitpack dispensing unit in the Broken Hill Hospital emergency department, authorisation of Coomealla Health Aboriginal Corporation as a secondary needle and syringe program (NSP) outlet and an upgrade of access to clean injecting equipment and disposal at Dareton Primary Health Centre.
“Improved access to clean injecting equipment encourages and enables people who choose to inject drugs to obtain and use a clean syringe and needle every time,” said a FWLHD spokesperson.
“It helps to break the cycle of spreading blood-borne viruses, especially considering the Far West LHD now leads the state in Hepatitis C notifications (in age standardised rates).”
The increased access to fitpacks could account for the surge in demand for syringes, but police said it was almost certainly driven by the prevalence of hard drugs in the community.
“Police are firmly of the opinion that the use of syringe injected drugs, such as amphetamine, has had a dramatic increase in the dispensing of fitpacks,” said Barrier LAC crime manager, Mick Stoltenberg.
“Amphetamines and other drugs that can also be injected have unfortunately become the drug of preference right across societies,” said Detective Inspector Stoltenberg.
“This also includes prescription medications that are either obtained legally with a script or by other means with people either on-selling their medication, stealing others’, and even standing over the frail and those in need of these sorts of medication.
“It is not a Broken Hill alone problem. It is a problem for society in general.”
The situation poses a dilemma for health officials and police alike.
Controlling blood borne diseases, while also limiting the ease with which illegal drug users - both existing and new - are able to pursue their habit, appears to be a difficult balancing act.
However with over 150,000 extra needles on the streets in the last year alone, DI Stoltenberg said a cap on the amount of fitpacks should be considered.
“I know and accept that it is all about harm minimisation but ... Personally, I am of the opinion that fitpacks should have a limit as to how many can be dispensed, and who to.
“If a law-abiding citizen goes in to a chemist to get something for a cold, they can be asked to produce ID and also questions about whether or not they have taken these sort of drugs before.
“If a drug user wants to go in and ask for fit packs, they are virtually handed over, no questions asked.”
Government studies have shown that clean needle programs can prevent the spread of disease and reduce long-term health costs, and also act as a referral point for those wanting to begin drug treatment.
An extra 30,765 syringe-filled “fitpacks” were distributed in the Far West between July 2012 to June 2013. PICTURE: Darrin Manuel