Scheme that supplies clean needles to users says demand is on rise
There has been an increase in demand at needle and syringe exchange facilities across Northern Ireland, new figures show.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) says visits to its needle and syringe exchange scheme (NSES) has risen by 3%.
According to its 2017/18 annual report, 30,065 visits were made to exchange needles and syringes, an increase of 782 visits from the previous year.
The PHA-coordinated project gives out clean needles and syringes to people who are injecting substances such as performance-enhancing steroids, tanning agents, stimulants and opioids. The scheme has been operating since 2005 and is accessible at 21 different locations.
Its aim is to prevent the spread of blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis B and C and HIV.
Of the total visits to the NSES, 4% injected tanning agent only; 28.79% injected steroids, or steroids as well as tanning agent, and opiates; and 64% injected opiates only.
The report shows that the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust area had the highest number of visits (14,523), while the Southern Trust area had the lowest number (1,451).
In addition, pharmacies in the Southern Trust area experienced a substantial increase in demand (up 64%), while the Northern Trust area noted a drop of nine per cent compared to the previous year.
The PHA says the rise may be due to the opening of two additional clinics and demonstrates a need for the scheme and good use of the service, which helps protect the wider community.
The PHA's drug and alcohol lead Michael Owen said: "Needle exchange services are based in areas where there is an existing pattern of people who inject, but they benefit the entire community, not only by providing a place for injecting equipment to be safely disposed of and reducing the risk of drug-related litter, but also lowering the risk of diseases within the wider population.
"For those who use the confidential service, the NSES provides them with direct access to a health professional, who can support them in engaging with treatment services to address their substance misuse."
"Providing services locally is vital, as people who inject substances are often vulnerable, may be in poor health, dealing with complex social issues and without local access to sterile equipment and advice," he added.