Abbotsford's anti-harm reduction bylaw is bumping up HIV rates
Lack of needle distribution centres makes outreach and treatment for disease difficult.
Advocates working with people suffering the HIV/AIDs virus in Abbotsford say the city's anti-harm reduction bylaws may negatively be impacting infection rates.
Brian Gross, of the Fraser Valley Positive Living Society, said the city's policies may be playing a role in the rise of some infection rates.
"Abbotsford's harm reduction by-law not only keeps proven life-saving materials, such as clean needles, from those who need them, but it sends the messages to drug users that their lives aren't important," said Gross.
The city's current bylaw bans harm reduction facilities such as needle exchanges or injection sites in all zones of the city.
The bylaw is presently undergoing a review by city staff and a report is expected this spring.
Statistics indicate that infection rates for the disease among both hetero and homosexual populations is on the rise in the Fraser East region, which stretches from Abbotsford east to Hope and Harrison, said Gross.
Straight transmission rates have risen from 13 per cent in 1996 to 42 per cent in 2007. Rates for gay men have almost tripled since 1999, rising to 32 per cent in 2007.
The city's policy of prohibiting needle distribution centres not only increases the risks of transmitting the virus, but it also means there are few opportunities to establish relationships with those already infected who need medical treatment.
New research shows that treating those with the HIV/AIDs virus significantly decreases new infections, said Gross.
The province recently committed $48 million to a four-year pilot project titled Stop HIV/AIDs to improve access to testing, treatment and support services with the aim of decreasing infection rates.
"If you find those infected with HIV and treat them, it reduces the viral load in a person's body to almost zero, making it unlikely they will transmit the virus. That means treatment is prevention, " said Gross. "But there needs to be a way to make connections with high-risk populations and build relationships so we can help people understand the benefits of testing and treatment."
Some organizations in the city working with marginalized populations are being forced into the ethical dilemma of having to decide whether or not to distribute needles illegally, he added.
"If you give out a needle you prevent transmission of a life-threatening disease, but you're doing something illegal," he said. "It's also hard to evaluate how needle distribution might be working [to prevent transmission] because it's all done underground."
The lack of harm reduction sites also makes it harder to track HIV transmission rates, he added. "There are still a significant number of people dying in the valley who are positive but don't know it and aren't being treated. The only way we know about it is because they die."
In addition to the lack of needle distribution sites, there are few places in Abbotsford where adult homosexual men can go to feel safe, connect with peers and get prevention or treatment information, said Gross.
"We're concerned that there are few ways to connect with men who have sex with men in the valley, and to convey non-judgmental prevention messages," he said. "Reducing HIV transmission in the [homosexual] population has a lot to do with public education."
In the fall, Fraser Health also raised concerns around Hepatitis C infection rates in Abbotsford in relation to its anti-harm reduction bylaws. The Fraser East region has the third highest reported rate of Hep C incidence in B.C., according to Fraser Health 2008 data.
Additionally, Abbotsford has a Hep C rate of 69.6 per 100,000 people compared to the surrounding municipalities of Chilliwack at a rate of 67.6, and Surrey at 60.2.
Fraser Health funds three community organizations to provide and collect needles in Burnaby/New Westminster, Surrey and Chilliwack. Mission also has one service organization distributing needles on a limited basis.
However, Fraser Health has not funded harm reduction services into Abbotsford because of its anti-harm reduction bylaws.
Mayor George Peary said council expects to see a report on the issue from staff soon. "The decision was to wait to see the report, and provide council the opportunity to seek public feedback, and make some decisions," said Peary adding there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue.
The current anti-harm reduction bylaws came into effect in 2005 with a unanimous vote by council, which included Peary, under Mary Reeves as mayor. However, new information from public heath officials and the city's social development advisory committee, merits a re-visitation of the issues, said Peary.
"We did not in those days have access to the rates on Hep C and HIV," said Peary, "It might be that this new information will cause who voted in favour of current status to change their minds."
- The Positive Living Fraser Valley Society operates a drop-in centre, The Lighthouse Centre, and services and leisure activities for HIV positive individuals and their families. For more information visit www.plfv.org/services_lighthouse_centre.html.