Saskatchewan is currently the Human Immunodeficiency Virus capital of Canada. At about 20 HIV cases per 100,000 people in 2011, we more than doubled the national average of about eight per 100,000. This is unacceptable for a province with such a strong economic advantage.
In Saskatchewan, it’s estimated that 75 per cent of cases occur due to needle sharing during drug use. While there are needle exchange programs, the reported 186 new cases of HIV suggest that more needs to be done to address this growing problem.
Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab has made clear that a supervised injection facility for drug users is an unlikely option for Saskatchewan cities. This is despite the fact that facilities, such as Insite in Vancouver, have shown to prevent HIV cases and deaths.
In 2009, Insite had 702 visits per day and handled 484 overdoses with zero deaths. In fact, Insite has not reported any deaths since opening. Beyond the benefits of human health improvements, the economic value of Insite has been estimated to be $18 million over 10 years.
There have been over 30 studies in academic journals regarding this issue. The Canadian Medical Association provides overwhelming support for the value of Insite. The benefits of Insite allow everyone to prevent the spread of HIV, reducing the number of needles discarded in public, and provides better access for addiction services to drug users.
Vancouver’s experience has been successful and it’s a pity the Saskatchewan government continues to refuse safe and supervised injection facilities.
While Dr. Shahab wants us to believe it’s a complex issue of rural and urban differences, this is a mere cover for electoral-political considerations trumping proven research.
Polls have indicated that programs like Insite remain most unpopular among federal Conservative voters in Saskatchewan than among other provinces. If the provincial Saskatchewan Party government were to invest in a safe injection facility, they could risk upsetting a political base which is full of federal Conservative voters. Instead, the Saskatchewan Party has pandered to the “tough on crime” elements within their ranks who clutch to the belief that the war on drugs is legitimate and can still be won.
While there are obvious concerns regarding the proximity of an injection facility to homes, schools and businesses, these concerns should not override the need for a facility like Insite. As long as it is placed where the demand is strongest, the benefits would be maximized.
By working in cooperation with the HIV community, health care workers and the police, our province can do more to prevent the growth of Saskatchewan’s already high HIV rates.
The Saskatchewan government’s disregard for the proven benefits of safe injection facilities is an unfortunate case of political considerations triumphing good policy. For some, it’s truly a case of life or death.