Provincial HIV/AIDs advocates call on Abbotsford to repeal anti-harm reduction bylaw
The City of Abbotsford is drawing fire yet again for its antagonistic stance around harm reduction measures to deal with drug addiction.
The Positive Living Society of BC, which advocates for people living with HIV/AIDS, has written to Mayor Bruce Banman and council to repeal the city's anti-harm reduction bylaws.
"Simply stated, harm reduction measures improve individual and public health outcomes by reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C," wrote the society's board chair Ken Buchanan in his Feb. 8 letter.
The city's 2005 bylaw banned harm reduction facilities such as needle exchanges or injection sites in all zones of the city.
Fraser Health has repeatedly emphasized the need to establish harm reduction measures in Abbotsford.
The Fraser East region, which includes Abbotsford, has the third highest reported rate of Hep C incidence in B.C., according to Fraser Health's most current 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.
A long-promised review of the bylaw is expected to come before council this spring. Abbotsford's "regressive" bylaws contribute to the cycle of harm that drug users are exposed to and create barriers to safer drug use, said Buchanan, adding the society fully supports treatment for addictions.
"People go into treatment when it's right for them, in the meantime, they shouldn't be exposed to HIV and Hep C," he told the Times.
Mayor Bruce Banman, a chiropractor, said his personal opinion about harm reduction is derived from a medical perspective.
"We need to look at our harm reduction policy, especially with regards to a needle exchange," said Banman, adding such programs alleviate costs on the medical system by preventing the spread of disease.
"Having needles returned also means they are not discarded in streets, harming the public and putting our children in harm's way."
Harm reduction also allows addicts regular contact with health professionals, who can help people seek treatment when they want it, he said.
Banman could not speak for the remainder of council on the issue. "I understand it's a highly emotional factor for people who have the notion it's condoning the use of drugs," he said. "But in my experience, I have yet to meet an addict, using or clean, who enjoys being an addict."
Mayor Bruce Banman and City Council
City of Abbotsford
32315 South Fraser Way
Dear Mayor Banman and City Council:
I am writing on behalf of the Board of Directors of the Positive Living Society of British Columbia to ask Abbotsford City Council to repeal the anti-harm reduction bylaw.
Positive Living BC (formerly known as the BC Persons with AIDS Society) has over 5,000 HIV-positive members from across British Columbia, including a significant number from your community. Our mission is to enable persons living with AIDS and HIV disease to empower themselves so that they are healthy and free to lead purposeful and actively engaged lives in an accepting, inclusive community.
Since 2005, Abbotsford's anti-harm reduction bylaw has prevented the establishment of harm reduction programs for drug users, including the opportunity for needle-exchange and a safe-injection site.
The pros and cons of harm reduction programs have been the subject of intense debate in cities across Canada. Many cities have embraced the harm reduction approach given the positive findings of evidence-based scientific research. Simply stated, harm reduction measures improve individual and public health outcomes by reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.
We share the concerns raised by the Fraser Health Authority regarding the negative consequences of the Abbotsford anti-harm reduction bylaw. Various media reports have consistently remarked upon the lack of needle-exchange, safe-injection and safe-smoking sites in Abbotsford.
The only facility providing some harm reduction services in Abbotsford is the Warm Zone, which operates under an exemption from the city bylaw. However, the centre - which is restricted to female clients - has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of clients since opening in 2009.
In this new era of "seek and treat," those who are involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS are hopeful that at some time in the not-too-distant future, the battle against HIV can either be won or contained. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. Although the incidence of new HIV cases in Fraser East is below average for the Fraser Health Authority, the same is not true for new cases of Hepatitis C.
Looking at the most recent annual report on HIV/AIDS statistics published by the Public Health Agency of Canada, Saskatchewan stands out as a cautionary example of how quickly the HIV epidemic can spiral out of control among injection drug users in the absence of appropriate harm-reduction measures. Over the past five years, the annual incidence of new HIV cases in Saskatchewan has almost quadrupled.
Many important elements that make up a comprehensive approach to harm reduction are included in the 2008 report, "Learning from Each Other: Enhancing Community-Based Harm Reduction Programs and Practices in Canada," published by the Canadian Harm Reduction Network and the Canadian AIDS Society.
More recently, the Fraser Health Authority, Abbotsford Community Services, and the Pactific Hepatitis C Network partnered with the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors in conducting a public consultation process concerning substance users in Abbotsford. The report's findings and recommendations are sound. The present bylaw "contributes to the 'cycle of harm' that drug users are exposed to...[by adding] barriers to safer drug use and inhibiting capacity to deal with anything other than issues related to survival."
On behalf of the Board of Directors of Positive Living BC, I request that Abbotsford City Council repeal the regressive anti-harm reduction bylaw in Abbotsford on an urgent basis.
Ken Buchanan, Chair
Board of Directors
Positive Living BC