Those using drugs will have a safer, more accessible supply of clean, personal and drug-use items after Northern Health Authority unveiled a “first of its kind” in the North harm reduction vending machine (HRVM) at Prince Rupert Regional Hospital on June 2.
Contents in the vending machine can include safe injections packs, safe inhalation packages, Naloxone kits, Fentanyl test strips, sharps disposal units, PPE, socks, COVID Rapid tests, condoms, basic wound care supplies, feminine hygiene products, resource and information documents as well as seasonal items.
The products in the machine are packaged in plain, labelled bags or wrappers.
“The objectives of this wellness machine are to increase access to harm-reduction materials and to reduce the sharing and reuse of supplies among people who use drugs, which can lead to a decrease in HIV and Hepatitis C infections. Its availability 24 hours a day makes supplies accessible and available, even when face-to-face services are closed,” Dr. Raina Fumerton, medical health officer for the Northwest HSDA, said.
“Vending machines are not intended to replace in-person or outreach services but rather complement these services by offering flexible access to supplies,” Dr. Fumerton said when introducing the $8,000 machine at a luncheon of invited community members.
She added that when access to drug supplies is limited in a community, sharing needles and other substances can occur, escalating the harm and potential transmission of HIV, Hepatitis and other blood-borne pathogens, thus increasing infections.
British Columbia Centre for Disease Control estimates that 433 individuals or people inject drugs (PWID) in the Northwest region. Of this number, each person will require a best practice minimum of 620 needles per year to reduce sharing and reusing the implements. This means 268,460 needles are needed to meet the best practice target, Dr. Fumerton explained.
In 2022 last year, 116,625 needles were shipped to the N.W. region. Based on that number, only 269 needles per person are being made available.
“Vending machines can be an increased access point for much-needed supplies in the community,” she said.
An advantage of the HRVM is that it increases geographic coverage for those needing clean supplies and is openly available all hours of the day. The service will attract youth and high-risk clients that would not otherwise have access to sterilized and sanitary supplies.
Prince Rupert Regional Hospital Health Services Administrator Julia Pemberton said the machine would benefit those who work during the day or shift workers who can not access local clinics during regular business hours or who want to maintain anonymity.
While the HRVM, located outside the hospital entrance and emergency room, is set up for token operation on a pilot plan, machines can also be touch, button or coin-operated. The ideal location for the machine is in the core or a place where the highest access will be, Pemberton said. Tokens for the machine are free at the health unit, emergency room and emergency services.
While many organizations support the principle of the machine, the statistics behind it and recognize the need for access to clean supplies, it was a challenge to find a high-access location, the hospital representative said. The team at Northern Health is looking for organizations and places that may accommodate a machine or those willing to carry a supply of the free tokens.
The vending machine, which requires electrical power, does not need to be indoors but needs a purpose-built cover or shelter to protect it from the environmental elements. Each machine can be customized to fit the requirements of the individual communities it serves. Northern Health professionals will monitor and restock the machine daily to ascertain the specific requirements and demand for particular items.
The machines are used in an estimated 14 countries that use needle/syringe vending machines to deliver and collect needles from those who use drugs. Earlier in the year, health wellness vending machines were unveiled in some southern parts of the province as well, the world’s first biometric dispensing machine for medical-grade opioids was introduced in Vancouver’s Downtown East side in 2020.
“I am so grateful to and proud of the team in Prince Rupert for their initiative and hard work in successfully installing this resource, the first of its kind in the north,” Dr. Fumerton said.
K-J Millar | Editor and Multimedia Journalist
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